A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The History Boys

Alan Bennett latest play was another hit for the National Theatre in London.  Comedy, pathos, and character delineation mix happily in this cameo of eight boys at a British preparatory school being readied for final exams that will determine university admission.  Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it focuses on two of the boys, the macho Dakin (Dominic Cooper) and the slight, sensitive Posner (Samuel Barnett), and two of the history teachers, the unorthodox Hector (Richard Griffiths) and the young, new Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) brought in to share techniques that will assure the boys’ entry to Oxford or Cambridge, not so much their goal as that of the headmaster (Clive Merrison).

Through back projection, monologue, and flashback, the canvas widens from the schoolroom and the headmaster’s office, where the action is set, to include Hector’s arrival for his class via motorcycle, as unorthodox as his teaching when you consider that Mr. Griffiths weighs about three hundred pounds, the hustle and bustle in the school’s corridors, the views of the one female history teacher, Ms. Lintott (Frances De La Tour), directed to the audience, and Posner’s confession, in flashback, of his homosexuality to Irwin.

The wittiest and most enjoyable sequences – for the students and the audience – take place in Hector’s classroom, where his “general studies” course is a mixture of literary classics, French, and movies of the fifties like “Now, Voyager,” and “Brief Encounter.” One hilarious incident, acted out by the boys in basic French, concerns a visit to a brothel, suitably transposed, when the headmaster bursts into the room, to a World War I hospital ward treating wounded soldiers.  Without being sentimental, Mr. Bennett conveys to the audience the differing characters of the teachers, and makes us share their points of view: Lintott, given real emotional depth by Ms. De la Tour as a woman faculty member whose important contribution to education is virtually overlooked by the males who outnumber her; Irwin, who at first is all flash as he teaches the boys that presentation (not content) is all, but as his character unfolds becomes more and more sympathetic, as portrayed by Mr. Moore; and the most unusual of all, Hector

In an entertaining, self-deprecating essay in the program, Mr. Bennett confesses he never had a teacher like Hector, and that he worked out for himself Wilson’s techniques which were responsible for examination essays that admitted him to Oxford.  And so Hector is an endearing, frustrating composite of the teacher we all wish we had encountered. As brilliantly played by Richard Griffiths, he is a modern-day Falstaff , a surrogate father to eight Hals: witty, self-assured, cynical, enlisting quotations to justify the outrageous, and above all, caring for the boys, though claiming the opposite. 

The boys, all of them impressively portrayed, are like a chorus, with their individual characteristics and their common goal, including athlete Rudge (Russell Tovey), who, being a working-class lad, is surprised at his admission to Oxford, “just what they are looking for.”  Scripps (suitably named) is probably the author, complete with forelock, quietly writing down his observations of the goings-on, and there are fine performances by Mr. Cooper as the handsome, self-assured Dakin (who turns out in later life to be a tax lawyer, what else?) and Mr. Barnett, in the difficult role of the troubled Posner, sweetly accepting his role as underdog – always the one who sits on the floor in the school photo. 

It is interesting to surmise whether “The History Boys” would be a hit on Broadway, with its Brit-speak allusions, like “gap year” and “supply teacher,” private schools being “public” ones, and naming universities deemed in the UK to be second-rate, though other terms, like “Oxbridge” are easy to figure out.  But many  can share the experience of preparing and waiting for admission to a university, and the characters Mr. Bennett creates, as he did in “Talking Heads” transcend the Atlantic. And there is the superb production and acting, with kudos to Mr. Hytner.  Tickets and performance schedule: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.