Review of 'The History Boys' by Alan Bennett… and More

(http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/the-history-boys/9780571231737)

Well, Dear Reader, here I am reviewing ‘The History Boys’.   I’m sure everybody else  has seen the film.  I don’t do films.  (Unlike one of the characters in THB who was instructed to say he enjoyed ‘film’.  Another character inevitably asked him if there was only one movie he liked!)

oxford_uni‘The History Boys’ should have pressed all the right buttons for me, seeing as it was about grammar school boys being prepared for Oxbridge exams in the 1980s.  I was a grammar school girl myself and I applied – in vain – to Oxford in the 1970s, to read history actually.  (My father, who had attended Cambridge at the time when you could just pay to go there, wanted it, and I was never particularly bothered.  Manchester suited me fine.)  The boys’ preparation was carried out by Mr Hector, who rides a motorbike and affects eccentricity and touches up the boys, and Mr Irwin, modern, serious and ruthless.  There were parts of it that were witty, and many more which were iconoclastic, particularly the idea that to get into Oxford or Cambridge you had to stand all accepted viewpoints on their head and argue the opposite, in order to stand out from the rest.  For example (I quote from the text):  “The Holocaust… it has origins.  It has consequences.  It’s a subject like any other.”  Although the two schoolmasters came out as distinct characters, the boys all blended into one, and there was only one female character.

Did I enjoy reading this?  Not particularly, although I was aware that it was well-written and thoughtful.   Did I laugh?  Not once, Dear Reader (although I think I was supposed to).

Tomorrow I go to see this play performed at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester.  Why didn’t I wait and see the performance?  You may think my answer strange but this is it.  Because I don’t like surprises.  I wanted to know what it was like beforehand, so that, if there were parts of it I found demanding, I could work through them in my own way.   This is why I don’t like film…s.  I don’t want some actor doing all the interpretation for me.  I love (reading) Dickens, but I find dramatisations of his work all wrong, too dramatic, hamming up the gory and unpleasant bits (like the catch in ‘Magwitch’s’ throat in ‘Great Expectations’) to the extent that you can’t follow the story.  Dickens always knew how far to go, whereas many other writers will wring the last drop of emotion from the reader.  Why should we enjoy being made to cry?   I don’t.   Am I alone in this?

When I’m writing,  I am in control.  I know how far I’m going to go with the horror, tragedy and emotion.

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6 thoughts on “Review of 'The History Boys' by Alan Bennett… and More

  1. Danny

    But a play isn’t written to be read, it’s written to be spoken and heard and seen. It’s not like a book, it isn’t written in the same way. A good playwrite knows that the actor and director will understand what to do with his words, and lift them off the page. The actors playing boys, for example, will work to make them all as individual as possible from the clues in the text. 6 of them are very distinct anyway. One is Asian, one is small Jewish and gay, one is religious and plays piano, one is sporty and less intelligent, one is class clown, one is constantly horny. To say they all blend into one is very unfair. There’s only one woman for a very good reason, read her rant in the interview scene.

    I haven’t seen the production you went to see, but I saw it at The National with its original cast and it was hilarious. I can only imagine that if the one you saw was a professional production it will have been just as funny and touching. Did you change your opinion after watching it?

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  2. charliebritten Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Danny. Having seen the Colchester production last night, I actually agree with you when you say that a play is not like a book and it’s up to the actors and directors to lift characters off the page. In the performance, the schoolboy characters did indeed become distinct. But, you know, I still didn’t enjoy it and I still didn’t laugh. I found the whole thing very cynical and pretentious and the underlying message, that it is acceptable for a schoolteacher to sexually abuse pupils, quite offensive.

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  3. Danny

    Fair enough. Bennett is pretty cynical to be fair.

    The fondling thing is interesting, because i think actually, it’s the boys who put themselves in the situation, Hector isn’t a predator. He offers a lift and they accept, knowing full well what will happen on the bike. Also, they are all legally consenting adults and it happens on a motor bike, where it couldn’t possibly go further, not in a stockroom or anything. So I don’t know that it is abuse. It’s certainly not right, but abuse implies that Hector is somehow forcing them. The whole thing is stylised of course which makes it seem like its set in a our universe but once removed, and sort of alters the rules a little bit. I read it as the act of a very lonely man rather than anything sexual. All of the characters are lonely and deal with it in different ways. Thats why i like the play though, it makes you think.

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  4. charliebritten Post author

    I take your point about the open nature of the motorbike and the fact that the boys collude by agreeing to take a lift, but it’s still abuse by something put in authority over persons under his control. The fact that they accept the lift, knowing what to expect, is not relevant because he has conditioned them to accept it. No contemporary teacher would be allowed to carry on doing it as Hector was, and those that get court are punished severely. …Meanwhile, do you have a blog? May I take a look?

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  5. Danny

    Hmm… i get what your saying and half agree, but can anything be abuse if it’s consenting? I don’t think Bennett thinks what Hector does is ok, Crowther says “He was stained and shabby and did unforgivable things, but he led you to expect the best”. So i don’t think its as simple as that. Also, during the whole Jimmy Saville thing (most of which occurred in the 80’s i think…), I found it interesting that a lot of people said that they sort of knew and yet nothing was done about it at the time. This may sound ridiculous, but was mild groping something that was seen in a less demonic light a few decades ago? Like hitting? I’m a 1981 baby so I don’t know.

    I don’t have a blog no. I found yours completely at random. I love the play and was searching for reviews of the productions that are currently on (Mercury and Crucible in Sheffield), and your blog popped up and I found it interesting and wanted to respond.

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