How appropriate that a play about the social and political inner-workings of an English boy’s school have its South African premiere in a town with a long standing tradition of British education.
But the school being depicted in Alan Bennett’s, The History Boys, a 1980s northern England boy’s school, is a far cry from the well-to-do and clinically ordered St. Andrew’s and Kingswoods of Grahamstown—or is it?
The play, which first opened in London in 2004 and received a Tony Award in 2006, lays bare the dominant social insecurities around institutions of higher learning—that they are the exacting determinants of success. One doesn’t have to read between the lines of dense literary allusions and references to literary greats, to get that Bennett is advocating education for education’s sake.
The plot centres around a headmaster’s selfish ambition to elevate his school’s profile by ensuring the graduating class gain entrance to Oxford or Cambridge. To accomplish this, he must counteract the unconventional methods of the the senior English and General Studies teacher, Hector, who slips culture and the love of literature through the back door by making learning a game. If this clever but unpolished class is to have a shot, they will need to be groomed.
To coach the boys in all things Oxbridge, the headmaster hires a polished and evermore strategising new teacher, Irwin. The two teachers couldn’t be more polar: the ever-calculating prim and proper Irwin and the slightly belligerent but mostly affable tongue-in-cheek Hector. The play asks whether knowledge should be a matter of the head or the heart and gestures towards the implications of both points of view.
What endears the play are the individual preoccupations and anxieties of each boy, which are developed through boisterous classroom scenes and spotlight monologues. The boys practice the subjunctive in French by enacting a scene in a brothel, which catches one student with his pants down. Religion and sexual orientation are strong themes in the first half and the story develops with good pace.
Sordid and perverse
But the story plunges into crass and agenda-driven propaganda in the second half. It is very clear Bennett is depicting an amoral, post-religion, postmodern Britain. What the Festival programme described as a tone of “gentle seriousness” was a hyperbolic understatement.
Good-natured and humorous references to homosexuality became sordid and perverse as they devolved into uncritical depictions of abusive relationships in second half. It was disturbing how casually and dishonestly these relationships were rendered: no one was victimised, no one was scarred, no one was truly condemned.
What initially promised to be edifying became emotionally exhausting. A comment on the importance of a well-rounded education became a comment of the depravity of British boy schools and the absolute hopelessness of humanity. The fatiguing nearly three hours left one feeling violated and manipulated and wondering what lies beneath the noble veneer of the British education system.