Alan Bennett’s The History Boys was the big-hit sensation of British new plays last year, and this year its success is rolling on. A film has been made of the original cast; meanwhile a second cast has toured Britain before bringing the play back to the National Theatre. It is surely the richest play Bennett has ever written. Wonderfully it blends wit and wisdom, now with knockabout humour, now with pain.
My only substantial reservation about The History Boys is this. Among its large cast of characters young and old, it features three homosexuals, each of whom Bennett singles out for an awful fate – one (Hector, the inspiring English master) to die in an accident, one (Irwin, the provocative history master) to be crippled for life, and the last (Posner, the one of the schoolboys who does best in his Oxbridge entry) to become a creepy loner, an internet saddo. The last feels particularly gratuitous: the play in no way needs Posner to be psychologically crippled to that extent. One might almost be tempted to label such a pattern of plot developments as homophobic. Yet The History Boys is a very far from homophobic play. Its tender, full-hearted understanding about the attractions between schoolboys and their schoolmasters – which nobody can mistake – strikes me as one of its finest features.
The current cast of The History Boys is very nearly as fine as the original. And in Desmond Barrit’s central performance as Hector I think it is still better. His love of language hangs inspiringly on the air, and his violent irreverence for correct behaviour burns hilariously. Beyond the “now” appeal that The History Boys has in its concern with the uses of education, it has a marvellous epistemological concern that I usually associate with the plays of Tom Stoppard: how do we know what we know? What are the different layers of knowledge? And how does knowledge enrich our lives?
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