"A play of depth as well as dazzle, intensely moving as well as thought-provoking and funny." --The Daily Telegraph
An unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form (or senior) boys in a British boys' school are, as such boys will be, in pursuit of sex, sport, and a place at a good university, generally in that order. In all their efforts, they are helped and hindered, enlightened and bemused, by a maverick English teacher who seeks to broaden their horizons in sometimes undefined ways, and a young history teacher who questions the methods, as well as the aim, of their schooling. In The History Boys, Alan Bennett evokes the special period and place that the sixth form represents in an English boy's life. In doing so, he raises--with gentle wit and pitch-perfect command of character--not only universal questions about the nature of history and how it is taught but also questions about the purpose of education today.
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Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in London, England.
The History Boys: A Play
Act One Irwin is in a wheelchair, in his forties, addressing three or four unidentified MPs. IRWIN This is the tricky one. The effect of the bill will be to abolish trial by jury in at least half the cases that currently come before the courts and will to a significant extent abolish the presumption of innocence. Our strategy should therefore be to insist that the bill does not diminish the liberty of the subject but amplifies it; that the true liberty of the subject consists in the freedom to walk the streets unmolested etc., etc., secure in the knowledge that if a crime is committed it will be promptly and sufficiently punished and that far from circumscribing the liberty of the subject this will enlarge it. I would try not to be shrill or earnest. An amused tolerance always comes over best, particularly on television. Paradox works well and mists up the windows, which is handy. 'The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom' type thing. School. That's all it is. In my case anyway. Back to school.
Though the general setting is a sixth-form classroom in a boys' school in the eighties in the north of England, when Hector first comes in, a figure in motor-cycle leathers and helmet, the stage is empty. His sixth-formers, eight boys of seventeen or eighteen, come briskly on and take Hector out of his motor-cyclegear, each boy removing an item and as he does so presenting it to the audience with a flourish. LOCKWOOD ( with gauntlets) Les gants. AKTHAR (with a scarf) L'écharpe. RUDGE Le blouson d'aviateur. Finally the helmet is removed. TIMMS Le casque. The taking-off of the helmet reveals Hector (which is both his surname and his nickname) as a schoolmaster of fifty or so. Dakin, a handsome boy, holds out a jacket. DAKIN Permettez-moi, monsieur. Hector puts on the jacket. HECTOR Bien fait, mes enfants. Bien fait. Hector is a man of studied eccentricity. He wears a bow tie. Classroom. Now fades the thunder of the youth of England clearing summer's obligatory hurdles. Felicitations to you all. Well done, Scripps! Bravo, Dakin! Crowther, congratulations. And Rudge, too. Remarkable. All, all deserve prizes. All, all have done that noble and necessary thing, you have satisfied the examiners of the Joint Matriculation Board, and now, proudly jingling your A Levels, those longed-for emblems of your conformity, you come before me once again to resume your education.
RUDGE What were A Levels, then? HECTOR Boys, boys, boys. A Levels, Rudge, are credentials, qualifications, the footings of your CV. Your Cheat's Visa. Time now for the bits in between. You will see from the timetable that our esteemed Headmaster has given these periods the euphemistic title -- Posner looks up the word in the dictionary. -- of General Studies. POSNER 'Euphemism ... substitution of mild or vague or roundabout expression for a harsh or direct one.' HECTOR A verbal fig-leaf. The mild or vague expression being General Studies. The harsh or direct one, Useless Knowledge. The otiose -- ( Points at Posner.) -- the trash, the department of why bother? POSNER 'Otiose: serving no practical purpose, without function.' HECTOR If, heaven forfend, I was ever entrusted with the timetable, I would call these lessons A Waste of Time. Nothing that happens here has anything to do with getting on, but remember, open quotation marks, 'All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use,' close quotation marks. Who said? Lockwood? Crowther? Timms? Akthar? Pause. 'Loveliest of trees the cherry now.' AKTHAR A. E. Housman, sir. HECTOR 'A. E. Housman, sir.' TIMMS Wasn't he a nancy, sir? HECTOR Foul, festering grubby-minded little trollop. Do not use that word. ( He hits him on the head with an exercise book.) TIMMS You use it, sir. HECTOR I do, sir, I know, but I am far gone in age and decrepitude. CROWTHER You're not supposed to hit us, sir. We could report you, sir. HECTOR ( despair) I know, I know. ( an elaborate pantomime, all this) DAKIN You should treat us with more respect. We're scholarship candidates now. We're all going in for Oxford and Cambridge. There is a silence and Hector sits down at his table, seemingly stunned. HECTOR 'Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire.' I thought all that silliness was finished with. I thought that after last year we were settling for the less lustrous institutions ... Derby, Leicester, Nottingham. Even my own dear Sheffield. Scripps. You believe in God. Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge. Why do you want to go there? LOCKWOOD Old, sir. Tried and tested. HECTOR No, it's because other boys want to go there. It's the hot ticket, standing room only. So I'll thank you ( hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford ( hit) or Cambridge ( hit) in my lessons. There is a world elsewhere. DAKIN You're hitting us again, sir. HECTOR Child, I am your teacher. Whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust. I am in your hands. It is a pact. Bread eaten in secret. 'I have put before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.' Oxford and Cambridge! He sits with his head on the desk, a parody of despair. POSNER ( Edgar) 'Look up, My Lord.' TIMMS ( Kent) 'Vex not his ghost. O let him pass. He hates him That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.' POSNER ( Edgar) 'O, he is gone indeed.' TIMMS ( Kent) 'The wonder is he hath endured so long. He but usurped this life.' Bell goes. Hector sits up. HECTOR 'I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no.' POSNER ( Edgar) 'The weight of this sad time we must obey Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.' TIMMS The hitting never hurt. It was a joke. None of us cared. We lapped it up. CROWTHER He goes mad. LOCKWOOD He hit me. He never hits me. RUDGE He hits you if he likes you. He never touches me. DAKIN ( happily) I'm black and blue. SCRIPPS It's true what he said. I did believe in God. Nobody else does. Like stamp collecting, it seems to have gone out and I suspect even the vicar thinks I am a freak. But the big man is glad. 'The Prayer Book. Hymns Ancient and Modern. Lucky boy!' Staff room. HEADMASTER Mrs Lintott, Dorothy. MRS LINTOTT Headmaster? HEADMASTER These Oxbridge boys. Your historians. Any special plans? MRS LINTOTT Their A Levels are very good. HEADMASTER Their A Levels are very good. And that is thanks to you, Dorothy. We've never had so many. Remarkable! But what now -- in teaching terms? MRS LINTOTT More of the same? HEADMASTER Oh. Do you think so? MRS LINTOTT It's what we've done before. HEADMASTER Quite. Without much success. No one last year. None the year before. When did we last have anyone in history at Oxford and Cambridge? MRS LINTOTT I tend not to distinguish. HEADMASTER Between Oxford and Cambridge? MRS LINTOTT Between centres of higher learning. Last year two at Bristol, one at York. The year before ... HEADMASTER Yes, yes. I know that, Dorothy. But I am thinking league tables. Open scholarships. Reports to the Governors. I want them to do themselves justice. I want them to do you justice. Factually tip-top as your boys always are, something more is required. MRS LINTOTT More? HEADMASTER Different. I would call it grooming did not that have overtones of the monkey house. 'Presentation' might be the word. MRS LINTOTT They know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts need no presentation, surely. HEADMASTER Oh, Dorothy. I think they do. 'The facts: serving suggestion.' MRS LINTOTT A sprig of parsley, you mean? Or an umbrella in the cocktail? Are dons so naive? HEADMASTER Naive, Dorothy? Or human? I am thinking of the boys. Clever, yes, remarkably so. Well taught, indubitably. But a little ... ordinaire? Think charm. Think polish. Think Renaissance Man. MRS LINTOTT Yes, Headmaster. HEADMASTER Hector. The Headmaster leaves as Hector comes in. HECTOR Headmaster. MRS LINTOTT Didn't you try for Cambridge? HECTOR Oxford. I was brought up in the West Riding. I wanted somewhere new. That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn't mind where I went. MRS LINTOTT Durham was good in that respect. HECTOR Sheffield wasn't. Cloisters, ancient libraries ... I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I'd probably never have worked out the difference. MRS LINTOTT Durham was very good for history, it's where I had my first pizza. Other things, too, of course, but it's the pizza that stands out. And fog, would you believe, one morning inside the cathedral. I loved it. I wish some of them were trying to go there.
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