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The history boys revision guide

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The history boys revision guide

  1. 1. The History Boys: Revision guideThemesThemes have been broken down into sections with quotes relating to each charactersposition within these themes.History (different views/representations of)As the play‘s title suggests, one of Bennett‘smain preoccupations in The History Boys isthesubject of history.The character of Irwinis representative of many modern historiansin search ofuntrodden ground. Irwin teacheshis boys to take some hitherto unquestionedhistoricalassumption and prove the opposite.Using this theory, Irwin makes the short leapfromhistory teacher to journalist to governmentspin-doctor, whose job it is to prove thattheloss of trial by jury does not impinge on civilliberties, but instead broadens them.For Irwin, history is not a matter of conviction,and he encourages the boys to bedispassionate,to distance themselves. This is a theorywhich works well when he isteaching theReformation, but causes controversy when theclass moves on to discussthe Holocaust. In akey scene, Irwin, Hector and the boys argueover whether theHolocaust should bestudied, and if so, how. Whilst Hector‘sapproach – to perceive theHolocaust as anunprecedented horror – may seem typicallynaive, Posner points out thatto put theHolocaust ‗in context is a step towards saying that it can be… explained. Andif it can be explained then it can be explained away.‘The History Boys highlights theresponsibilityof the historian, and asks questions about theapproach the historianshould take in studyingthe past.(See the extension sheet on references for further information)Quotations‗How do I define history? Its just one fucking thing after another‘ ( Rudge-85)‗History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.‘ (MrsLintott-85)‗ History is women following behind with the bucket.‖ (Mrs Lintott-80)―[talking about the Holocaust]But to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and thatit can be explained. And if it can be explained that it can be explained away.But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Lookingback, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We dont see it, and because we dontsee it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past. And one of thehistorians jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be... even onthe Holocaust.‘‗Its subjunctive history.‘ ‗ You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when somethingmay or may not have happened. When it is imagined.‘ (Dakin-90)‗History nowadays is not a matter of conviction.It‘s a performance. It‘s entertainment. And if it isn‘t, make it so.‘ (Irwin-35)‗History‘s not such a frolic for women as for men. Why should it be? They never getround the conference table‘ (Mrs Lintott-84)
  2. 2. ‗Story-telling, so much of it, which is what men do naturally (Mrs Lintott-22)‗…having taught you all history on a strictly non-gender orientated basis I just wonderif it occurs to any of you how dispiriting this can be?‘ (Mrs Lintott-83)Education (The purpose of)The play begins as the boys return to school after receiving their A level results andfollows them as they set to preparing in earnest for the entrance examinations forOxford. While Hector insists throughout the play that his lessons are to guide theboys in life, the Headmaster and Irwin have differingeducational goals. Their plan is toteach theboys how to pass the test, to give their workpolish and make them stand out.The HistoryBoys pits these duelling philosophies oneducation—learning for life andlearninghow to pass a test—against one another,encouraging us to examine what truly ismostpractical in our own educationalsystem.Quotes‗…or what‘s all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against theboys‘ ultimate failure?‘(Mrs Lintott-69)‗Turning facts on their head. It‘s like a game.‘(Dakin-80)‗I would call it grooming did not that have overtones of the monkey house.‗Presentation‘ might be the word‘(Headmaster-8)And they are bright, brighter than last year‘s. But that‘s not enough apparently‘ (MrsLintott-10)‗…teachers just remember the books they loved as students‘ and shove them on thesyllabus‘ (Mrs Lintott-23)Irwin‘The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a backdoor. Go in the back, or better still, the side... Flee the crowd... History nowadays is nota matter of conviction. It‘s a performance. It‘s entertainment. And if it isn‘t, make itso. (38)‗Education isn‘t something for when they‘re old and grey and sitting by the fire. It‘s fornow. The exam is next month.‘ (49)‗I sympathise with your feelings about examinations, but they are a fact of life (48)‗Dakin:Like Mr Hector‘s lessons then, sir. They‘re a waste of time, too.Irwin:Yes, you little smart arse, but he‘s not trying to get you through an exam. (38)‗…truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion ata striptease.‘ (26)Hector‗It‘s to make us more rounded human beings‘ (Timms-38)‗Hector never bothered with what he was educating those boys for‘ (Mrs Lintott-107)‗Akthar:It‘s just the knowledge, sir.Timms:The pursuit of it for its own sake, sir.‘(37)‗Hector:All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use‘. (4-7)
  3. 3. Hector: … proudly jingling your A Levels, those longed-for emblems of your conformity,you have come before me once again to resume your education... A Levels... arecredentials, qualifications, the footings of your CV. Your Cheat‘s Visa. (4)‗Headmaster:Mr Hector has an old-fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words.(49)‗Mrs Lintott:Forgive Hector. He is trying to be the kind of teacher pupils willremember. Someone they will look back on.‘‗You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it‘ (Hector-23)WomenWomen are completely side-lined in the play, but this doesn‘t mean that the roleof women could not come up as a theme.It could be said that they are significant by their absence.Women in the play are side-lined just as they are in society and education as awhole.Mrs Lintott is the only women with a voice in this play.Quotes―History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What ishistory? History is women following behind with the bucket.‖ (Mrs Lintott-85)‗…the predilections and preoccupations of men. They kick their particular stone alongthe street and I watch.‘(Mrs Lintott-68)‗Women so seldom get a turn for a start. Elizabeth I less remarkable for her abilitiesthan that, unlike most if her sisters, she did get the chance to exercise them (MrsLintott-83)‗…and that I should be assumed to be so discreet is in itself condescending. I‘m whatmen would call a safe pair of hands‘ (Mrs Lintott-68/69)‗…a feminine approach to things: rueful, accepting, taking things as you find them (MrsLintott-84)‗It‘s not our fault, miss. It‘s just the way it is.‘ (Timms-84)‗…there are no women historians on TV, it‘s because they don‘t get carried away for astart, and they don‘t come bounding up to you with every new historical notion theycome up with…‘ (Mrs Lintott-84)Women as sex objects:‗Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot beeasym who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings, virtually on a daily basis.‘ (Dakin-77)‗chases her round the desk hoping to cop a feel‘ (Dakin-29)‗She‘s my western front. Last night for instance, meeting only token resistance. Ireconnoitred the ground…‘ (Dakin-28)‗I asked [the headmaster] what the difference was between Hector touching us up onthe bike and him trying to feel up Fiona (Dakin-102)
  4. 4. POETRY AND LITERATUREAt first glance, The History Boys appears to be just one reference after another. Ifthe boys or Hector are not quoting Auden, they are performing scenes fromShakespeare, or from 1950s films. Hector is the main representative of this theme.For Hector, poetry and literature are part of hispreparing the boys for life. WhenTimmscomplains that he doesn‘t always understandpoetry, Hector says: ‗Read it now,learn it now, and you‘ll know it whenever. We‘re making our deathbeds here boys.‘Hector sees poetry as a way of understandinglife, making sense of the endlesslycomplicatedworld. Posner says he sees literature as‗elastoplast‘, and when confrontedby theheadmaster about his behaviour on themotorbike, Hector comments this is ‗justthetime‘ for poetry.Irwin, on the other hand, has a different use inmind. Soon after arriving at the school,he seesthe boys have this amazing resource ofquotations; ‗gobbets‘ that could be usedtomake their ailing essays more interesting to theexaminer who will decide if they areoffered aplace at university or not.Lockwood describes Mr Hector‘s stuff as‗nobler‘ than what the boys learn with Mr Irwin,but Hector himself describes it as awaste of time. During the course of the play, the boyschange from being very resistantto Mr Irwin‘steaching style to embracing it fully. Even Rudgesays all the right things athis interview –‗Wilfred Owen was a wuss and Stalin was a sweetie‘.However, it is Hector who is given the last line in the play.His often-criticised teachingmethods are given a defence:‗Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me,not for you but for someone, somewhere,one day.‘(See the extension sheet on references for further information)Quotes‗Poetry is good up to a point. Adds flavour‘ (Irwin-26)‗…They‘re being learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like the othercomponents of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order. (Hector-48)‗It‘s not education. It‘s culture (Akthar-39)―I dont always understand poetry! (Timms-40)You dont always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know itnow and you will understand it... whenever.‖ (Hector-40)―The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, afeeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you.And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someoneeven who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours‖ (Hector-56)InnocenceThe History Boysdeals quite heavilywith the issue of growing up. Not only doesthefuture of the boys hang in the balancewith the entrance exams, but theschool‘sreputation lies squarely upon theirshoulders. As Hector and Irwin battleovereducational ideologies, the boys becomeaware of how the world works, no
  5. 5. longersimply clinging to route memorization offacts and quotes. They are forced tostepoutside of their childlike innocence andstake claim to a more critical andcynicalassessment of their surroundings. The playalso takes on the issue of sexualidentity, asthe boys deal simultaneously with Hector‘ssexual abuse and the confusion oftrying tofind their own identities.THE ‘FIDDLING’One of the liveliest discussions we had inrehearsals was on the subject of what Hectordoes with the boys on the motorbike. In thehands of a different playwright, the imageof ateacher touching his students‘ genitals wouldbe sinister, if not downrightdisturbing, but inThe History Boys it becomes a source ofamusement for the boys – atleast until it provesto be Hector‘s undoing and the end of histeaching career.Part ofthe reason we are not disturbed byHector‘s actions, either as a reader of the playor asan audience member, is because Hector does not force himself on the boys. Heoffersthem a lift home which they are free to declineor accept, knowing what they areagreeing to.Far from being forced into sexual contactagainst their will, Dakin even goesso far as tosay he wishes Hector would ‗just go for it‘.The motorbike is another reasonwhy thefiddling is benign rather than threatening. Thefact that this all takes place onthe back of amoving vehicle creates a humorous rather thansinister picture. AlanBennett explained wherethis idea came from. Once, as a teenager, hewas hitchhiking inWales, and was picked up bya passing motorcyclist. As they sped along,Alan became aware that the motorcyclist wasreaching behind in order to touch hispassenger‘s crotch. When he realised that Alanwas not interested, the man pulled over,andleft him in the middle of nowhere, near adeserted quarry.Alan Bennett laughed ashe told us theanecdote, and we laughed too – his naturalsense of humour brushed awayany idea thatHector abuses his position of power, or that theboys would be ‗scarred forlife‘.‗Are we scared for life, do you think‘ (Dakin-77)HOPE AND FAILUREThe theme of hope andfailure plays a large part in The History Boys.Whilst the boysseem to have everything to livefor – the rest of their lives ahead of them –Hector, andto an extent Mrs Lintott, are placedin stark contrast. Theirs is a life of failedambition.Mrs Lintott asks the boys if they realise howdispiriting it is to teach ‗fivecenturies ofmasculine ineptitude‘. She does not think ofherself as bold, as sheconfesses in Act Two.Hector tells Irwin not to teach:‗It ought torenew… the young mind; warm, eager, trusting;instead comes… a kind ofcoarsening. Youstart to clown. Plus a fatigue that passesfor philosophy but is nearer toindifference.‘Even Posner, an exceptionally bright studentwho is later awarded a scholarship,goes on to drop out of university, and ‗hasperiodic breakdowns. He haunts the locallibrary and keeps a scrapbook of theachievements of his one-time classmates‘.The theme of loneliness recurs throughoutmuch of Bennett‘s writing, and isparticularlyapparent in his series of monologues TalkingHeads. The former Director of
  6. 6. the NationalTheatre, Richard Eyre, has described Bennett‘swriting as ‗‗all aboutunrealised hope anddefeated expectations‘‘.It could be argued that just as Hardy‘s‗Drummer Hodge‘ reaches out and touchesthe hands of Posner and Hector, so Bennett‘scharacters‘ feelings of isolation andloneliness, touch his audience.Main CharactersHectorHector is the focus of more scenes than any other character, it is his life which iscelebrated in the final scene of the play and it is his words which provide theconclusion to the piece.What is obvious from the scenes in the classroom is the depth of the bond betweenHector and the boys. He knows them as individuals and the class, individually andcollectively, regard him as much more than just one of the teachers they haveencountered in their school careers. It is not hard to see why this should be so. Hiserudition is such as to appear not in any way a kind of showing off by an adult beforeimpressionable young people but a manifestation of someone for whom literature hasalways provided the truest and most dependable source of wisdom and guidance in life.His enthusiasm for writing and writers is infectious and we see on numerous occasionsthe boys‘ ability and readiness to contribute quotations and references of their own indiscussions with him and with Irwin, a trait which the latter appears to find more thana trifle unsettling. As Mrs Lintott states about Hector and the effect he has onstudents, Heimpinges (p. 50).Although there is a seeming lack of direction and purpose to Hector‘s lessons, yet thevery fact that the boys appear to have previously studied English with him at A Leveland done well suggests that his methods cannot have been totally unfocused. Even inthe set-piece of the General Studies ‗brothel-scene‘ (pp. 12–16), he insists that thestudents use the conditional or subjunctive forms in their French. In other words,Hector has the enviable knack of ‗sugaring the pill‘, of making learning fun. Of course,this involves taking risks and the success of this approach is dependent upon the trustestablished between the teacher and the class. This bond is apparent in the way theboys show, initially at least, a reluctance to respond positively to Irwin‘s encouragingthem to use every available piece of knowledge, including literary works, in theirOxbridge History examinations, the irony in their voices on p. 39 notwithstanding:Akthar: We couldn‘t do that, sir.That would be a betrayal of trust.Laying bare our souls, sir.Lockwood: Is nothing sacred, sir?We‘re shocked.The seemingly anarchic approach to teaching and learning is troubling to Irwin, whokeeps asking the boys about what actually happens in Hector‘s lessons and complains toHector himself (p. 48) and to the Headmaster (p. 49) about the reluctance of the boysto utilise their Hector-inspired knowledge in the context of the preparation for theimminent examinations. Less surprisingly, the Headmaster is frustrated in his attemptsto classify the gifts of the English teacher within the established framework,
  7. 7. complaining that his methods areunpredictable and unquantifiable and in the currenteducational climate that is no use (p. 67).Thescene in which Hector discusses the Thomas Hardy poem Drummer Hodge withPosner (pp. 53–56) is one of the most moving in the play and shows to us, in beautifullywritten naturalistic language, a side of Hector which is quite different from theexuberant classroom performer. His spontaneous explication of the poem and itscelebration of the short life of the young soldier is that of the natural teacher whoexudes warmth and sensitivity alongside literary insight. The lines in which he talks toPosner of the best moments in reading (p. 56) are, arguably, the finest in the wholeplay.Hector is not afraid to express his distaste for the kind of utilitarian approach tolearning epitomised by Irwin. He winces at Irwin‘s use of the word gobbets to describethe handy little quotes that can be trotted out to make a point:Hector:Oh, it would be useful... every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Exc(p. 48)Likewise, Hector is appalled at the idea of a phenomenon like the Holocaust beingtaught in school just like any other topic:Hector: They go on school trips nowadays, don‘t they? Auschwitz. Dachau. Whathas always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their coke?Crowther: The visitors‘ centre. It‘s like anywhere else.Hector: Do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do theyhold hands? Nothing is appropriate. Just as questions on an examination paper areinappropriate.How can the boys scribble down an answer however well that doesn‘t demean thesuffering involved?And putting it well demeans it as much as putting it badly.Irwin: It‘s a question of tone, surely. Tact.Hector: Not tact. Decorum.(p. 71)It could be said that Hector‘s high moral tone here is tinged with a degree of jealousyat the thought of his position as the boys‘ favourite teacher being threatened by thearrival of the younger man who has his own idiosyncratic ways with which to impresstheir young minds. Equally, his dismissal of the practical application of knowledge,including in examinations, can be seen as something of an indulgence. He owes hisposition as a teacher, after all, to the qualifications he possesses and in decrying thecompetitive nature of the university entrance, not least to Oxbridge for those, like theboys here, with no established tradition in their families, he is ignoring a large slice oftheir current reality.Self-indulgence and a wilful ignoring of reality are charges which might equally be laidagainst Hector (and the playwright?) with regard to his conduct with selected boys onhis motorcycle trips. Despite the existence of his somewhat unexpected wife (p. 41),Hector‘s homosexual proclivities are not in doubt. What is in question is the wisdom ofhis establishing the tradition of riding home on the motorcycle accompanied by one ofthe boys on the pillion seat, with groping of their private parts as part of the package.The boys are prepared to indulge him, with varying degrees of reluctance, as amanifestation of their devotion to him, but, when his behaviour is exposed, both the
  8. 8. Headmaster (pp. 52–53) and Mrs Lintott (p. 95) are both surely right to dismiss hisclaims that what took place was something profound. In his choice of boys, Hector hasbeen snobbishly selective, never picking the physically slight Posner, ironically the onehomosexual student amongst them.Dakin insists that Hector‘s a joke...Thatside of him is (p. 101). The truth is, surely, thatHector, in attempting to relieve some of the physical frustration resultant from his lifeas a closet homosexual, has exploited his position with the boys. Though the playpresents the student participants like Scripps and Dakin as being cheerfully unscarredby the experience, in reality things could have been quite different.In the latter stages of the play, the fragility of Hector‘s world which lies behind thepersona he sustains in the classroom is revealed. On p. 65 he shocks the boys with anoutburst expressing the disgust he feels towards his own life:Hector: Shut up! All of you.SHUT UP, you mindless fools.What made me piss my life away in this god-forsaken place? There‘s nothing ofme left. Go away. Class dismissed. Go.Later, on pp. 94–95, he confides to Irwin, whom he perhaps sees as, in some respects,his younger self, differences of educational philosophy notwithstanding, how teachinghas led to a kind of coarsening of the spirit, trapping the self in the fixed role as clown,until the falsity of the situation makes the boys become merely work. He warns Irwinagainst becoming involved with Dakin, to whom he can see the younger teacher isattracted, advising him instead to sublimate such feelings, with the occasional booster,a process which can last you a lifetime.We see Hector as very much a flawed hero. However much devotion and loyalty he mayinspire amongst his students and however enlightened his approach to education andteaching, he knows that he has paid a high price for living through his work. From ageneration for whom the more liberal, post-1960s climate, in terms of attitudes tohomosexuality, came too late in life, he has channelled his suppressed sexual energiesinto his life in the classroom. His close – and, on the motorcycle, dangerous –relationships with his students and his immersion in the world of literature have, untilnow, allowed him to cope with what is, by his own estimation, an unsatisfactory andunsatisfying existence.Despite this, it is Hector whose life is celebrated at the end of the play, by studentsand colleagues whose lives he has touched, in many cases profoundly. Like many a herofrom literature, it is his inner turmoil which gives his character substance andhumanity.Quotes‗I am an old man in a dry season‘ (66)‗Hector is a mad of studied eccentricity.‘(stage direction-4)‗Your teaching, however effective it may or may not have been, has always seemed tome to be selfish…‘(53)‗Child, I am your teacher. Whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust. I am inyour hands. It is a pact. Bread eaten in secret‘ (6)‗It‘s locked against the Forces of Progress, Sir‘ (36)‗…as he dropped you at the corner, your honour still intact‘ (77)
  9. 9. ‗He was a good man, but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching anymore.‘(109)‗He was stained and shabby and did unforgivable things but he led you to expect thebest.‘ (107)IrwinTo an extent, Irwin exists as a counterpoint to Hector and his ultra-liberal approach inthe classroom, providing the embodiment of the opposite extreme in the debate oneducational values which underpins much of the play. Whilst Hector purports to despisethe pursuit of examination success, Irwin‘s whole strategy as a teacher of History tothe boys as they prepare for their Oxbridge entrance examinations is to encouragethem to find and adopt positions on historical phenomena as much opposed to orthodoxinterpretations as possible, so as to impress their examiners with their supposedoriginality and freshness of insight. Whilst his initial use of ‗shock tactics‘ with theboys, including his disparaging of their written work and the mention of the fourteenforeskins of Christ (p. 18), do not overly impress them, his influence upon them growsperceptively. Dakin, who had originally dismissed Irwin‘s iconoclasm as a predictableattempt to show he‘s still in the game (p. 21), is the one who feels himself coming toappreciate the new teacher‘s ways, including his continued and provocative insistence onthe mediocrity of his work.Bennett never portrays Irwin as a ridiculous figure. His emphasis on the need for theboys to produce answers which go well beyond the merely competent, using any means –Turning facts upon their head, as Dakin puts it (p. 80) – and scraps of knowledge inorder to stand out from their competitors, may offend a purist like Hector, but it is atactic grounded in an appreciation of the realities of Oxbridge entrance procedures.Irwin knows – perhaps from painful personal experience, given that he admits to Dakinthat his own application to Oxford ended in failure (p. 99) – that the dons are likely tobe impressed with unorthodox approaches, seeing them as signs of the much-prizedcapacity for independence of thought. State school candidates like the boys in theclass need to be able to compete with those whose family and class backgrounds haveafforded them greater opportunities to obtain a veneer of academic sophistication. Thesuccess of the applications proves the efficacy of Irwin‘s approach. In this sense, wecould say that Irwin has the best interests of the boys at heart and proves to havemade a telling contribution to their quest for academic and social betterment.The play does, however, give us glimpses of darker, less admirable sides to Irwin.Whilst his encouraging of the boys to manipulate historical material might be, in thecontext of the highly competitive Oxbridge entry procedures, understandable andjustifiable, we are shown in the scenes from his post-teaching career that he hasextended this extreme pragmatism into later life. His television persona again usesdubious shock tactics in order to impress his mass audience, whilst, in the first sceneof the play, his later position at the heart of government shows him distorting languagein a cynical ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate. The calculating natureof Irwin can, perhaps, be recognised in the school scenes not only in his approach to theteaching of History but in the way he keeps asking the boys about what happens inHector‘s lessons, how they come to know lines of poetry by heart and why they are not
  10. 10. prepared to contemplate the use of knowledge gained with Hector in his own lessons.Out of the classroom, Irwin appears much more diffident than when in front of thegroup, seeming unsettled by the very idea of Hector‘s spontaneity and the apparentlyunstructured nature of his approach to teaching and learning. It is as if he cannotunderstand this very antithesis of his own clearly focused, goal-driven outlook. WhenIrwin, in the final scene, opines that Hector was a good man, but I do not think thatthere is time for his kind of teachinganymore (p. 109), one feels that this is statedwith some degree of satisfaction. The future, he must recognise, belongs to such ashimself. The fact that he survives the accident which killed Hector is, perhaps,symbolic of the fading of the old liberal ethos in the world of education, to be replacedby one much more hardened and suited to the modern era.There remains the question of Irwin‘s sexuality. He is, of course, one of threecharacters in the play who are seen to express their homosexual identities in differentways. Where Hector indulges in furtive fumblings on the motorcycle, talkingsententiously of the laying on of hands, and Posner‘s open displays of adolescentyearning for Dakin are replaced by hints of profound unhappiness in adulthood, Irwininitially seems to wish to hide his true nature. Though, significantly, it is to him thatPosner turns to talk of his own burgeoning homosexual feelings, the young teacher iscareful, as he tells Mrs Lintott, not to give any idea of that he might be in thesameboat (p. 42).Posner, however, can see only too clearly that Irwin himself isattracted to Dakin and, when that supremely confident student makes his advances tohim, Irwin‘s cool handling of the loaded language about the invasion of Poland (pp. 89–90)is followed by a more active response to Dakin‘s more blatant suggestions on pp. 99–102.The fact that it has taken an approach from a younger, heterosexual person forIrwin to emerge from a situation which Dakin describes as a kind of lying (p. 99) issignificant. The accident which kills Hector prevents any further development of thesituation and we might presume that, in later life, Irwin has reverted to conducting hissexual life in a discreet, if not covert, fashion. Bennett is, perhaps, suggesting thatIrwin‘s inherent dishonesty as to his real sexual identity is part of an overall andabiding lack of integrity about this figure.Quotes‗You are very young. Grow a moustache.‘ (12)‗Have a heart. He‘s only fiveminutes older than we are (21)‗I enjoyed your programmes but they were more journalism than history. What you callyourself now you‘re in politics I‘m not sure.‘ (108)‗…How come there‘s such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live?‘(100)‗I did go to Oxford, but it was just to do a teaching diploma.‘ (99)Mrs LintottAlthough Mrs Lintott – Dorothy – is not given as many lines as Hector or Irwin, shedoes play an important role within the play, not only as the only female character butalso as a teacher who does not indulge in either of the extremes of classroom practiceassociated with her two colleagues. She is obviously a more than competent teacher,
  11. 11. the boys having gained high A Level grades in History under her tutelage. She doesn‘tparticularly involve herself directly in the struggle of ideas (and egos) between Hectorand Irwin, not making undue protestations at the Headmaster‘s assumption that theboys need more than she can give them if their Oxbridge applications are to besuccessful. She does not believe in showing too much of a human face in front of thestudents and realises that she will never impinge (p. 50) on the lives of the boys in theway Hector does, not that, in all probability, she would want to.In conversations with colleagues, she adopts a tone of wry detachment, always ready tospot and deflate with sardonic humour any manifestations of pomposity, as with theHeadmaster, or the tendency which she sees in Hector towards casting a romanticsheen over his own repressed sexual longings. There is an obvious warmth betweenthese two old colleagues, but Dorothy is rightly disinclined to see Hector‘s behaviour onthe motorcycle as anything less than foolishness. We might assume that she has beenwounded by her husband‘s desertion of her (p. 22) and that her impatience withmasculine pretence is one consequence of this. She talks sympathetically with Irwin,giving him various bits of advice on how to deal with situations, without ever beingcondescending or overbearing.Dorothy is a woman in the man‘s world of the boys‘ grammar school and understandablyfinds dispiriting (p. 83)the unspoken assumption of the boys and her two teachingcolleagues that the Oxbridge interviewing process would be an all-male affair. In thesame scene, her expressions of frustration extend to the experience of teaching fivecenturies of masculine ineptitude (p. 84). History as it is recorded and studied, sheinsists, is essentially a male view on a world where males have a virtual monopoly onpower:Mrs Lintott: ‘...History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities ofmen. What is History? History is women following behind with the bucket.‘ (p. 85)This is the one instance in the play when Dorothy allows her mask of irony to slip,allowing us to see a more passionate side to a character who, for the most part, prefersto remove herself from the fray. She is the bedrock of education, as women are thebedrock of history.Quotes‗they know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts need nopresentation, surely (8-10)‗One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human.‘ (42)‗You‘ve force-fed us the facts; now we‘re in the process of running around acquiringflavour.‘ (Rudge-33)Their A levels are very good. And that is thanks to you‘ (Headmaster-8)The HeadmasterThe Headmaster – Felix – is arguably not so much a character as a caricature. UnlikeBennett‘s approach to the other teachers, there is no attempt on the writer‘s part to‗flesh out‘ the monochrome portrait of an officious autocrat who is only too happy toplay the number-crunching games associated with the modern world of education. Thereare no shades of grey or ambiguities in this figure, who serves as the butt of much of
  12. 12. the comedy within the play. His desire for enhanced numbers gaining Oxbridge entryfrom his school has, one feels, less to do with a cherishing of academic excellence or agenuine concern to see boys from ‗ordinary‘ backgrounds break through into thehitherto privileged worlds of Oxford and Cambridge than a need to bask in thereflected glory that accompanies such success. His speech is riddled with ridiculousattempts to sound ‗hip‘, whilst in conversation with his teachers he is inevitablypatronising or dismissive. Even Irwin, chosen especially to be the agent of therevolution guaranteeing Oxbridge success, is treated without real respect, being urgedto grow a moustache in order to improve his discipline with the boys (p. 12). He iscontemptuous of Hector‘s old-fashionedfaith in the redemptive power of words (p. 49)but, like a true hypocrite, is happy to speak in glowing terms of just this quality at theEnglish teacher‘s memorial service (p. 106). The only indications of a private life are thementions of his wife‘s working in a charity shop, from where she observes Hector‘sbehaviour on the motorcycle, and Dakin‘s awareness of his being a rival for the sexualfavours of Fiona, the school secretary.In his defence, it could be argued that Felix is merely accommodating to the spirit ofthe age. Like any head of an educational establishment, he would feel under pressurefrom a variety of sources – local and national governments, school governors, parents,ambitious students, local media etc. – to produce results in terms of examinationsuccess and Oxbridge entry. Whilst there is a touch of the grotesque in the portrayalof this figure by Bennett, Felix serves perhaps an indication of the destructive anddehumanising effect of the modern application to the realm of education of criteriaimported from the harsh, competitive world of business and commerce.Quotes‗…the chief enemy of culture in any school is always the Headmaster (Mrs Lintott-50)‗I was a geographer. I went to Hull.‘ (11)‗But I am thinking league tables.‘ (8)The BoysThere are eight boys in the seventh-term Oxbridge class but it is fair to say that,whilst Bennett has given them a strong group identity, he has individualised three ofthem, leaving the rest to blend into the collective background.As a group, the boys show a suitably irreverent attitude towards both Hector andIrwin. With the first, this is all part of the complex relationship which exists betweenteacher and students. Their devotion to him, based presumably on previous years of histeaching methods, is evinced by the warmth of the atmosphere which exists in hisclasses, by their shared enjoyment of both canonical literature and the films of his ownyouth, and, more darkly, their willingness to indulge in the ritual abuse on hismotorcycle. With Irwin, they show an initial resistance to both his rather obviousattempts to shock them into attention but gradually become more appreciative of hisemphasis on the need for presenting unorthodox cases in their entrance examinations.In all the classroom scenes, they show an impressive – many would say unrealistic –familiarity with works of both literature and historical issues. Throughout the play,they display a mixture of youthful promise mixed with the wariness of their generationtowards the claims of both established authority and its would-be alternatives.
  13. 13. Scripps is, in many ways, the most sympathetically drawn character amongst them. It ishe who is quick to join in the games based upon classic films by providing suitable pianoaccompaniment or acting a role, he joins in the brothel scene, can produce a literaryquotation readily and knows how to pronounce Nietzsche. He is happy to admit to Dakinhis own decision to involve himself in Christian belief and worship, but he wears thiscommitment lightly, cheerfully accepting the ribald responses of his friend, who hasmuch more secular tastes. Scripps is given the final lines of appreciation for the life ofHector, contradicting Irwin‘s assertion that his methods were no longer appropriate byinsisting that Love apart, it is the only education worthhaving (p. 109). It is a mark ofScripps‘ seniority, as it were, that Bennett entrusts him with the role of narrator atvarious points in the play, as if he were the one person most able, both then and later,to appreciate the full implications of what was happening. He seems to be reasonablywell-adjusted in adulthood, his career as a journalist on a quality newspaper providingan appropriate outlet for his capacity for serious reflection, with the possibilitiesexisting of his turning to more creative work.Posner is, as Mrs Lintott states in the final scene of the play, ... of all Hector‘s boys...the only one who truly took everything to heart, remembers everything he wasevertaught... the songs, the sayings, the endings; the words of Hector neverforgotten(p.108).It is significant that he turns up for Hector‘s tutorial on poetry whilstDakin defaults, preferring to look over old examination papers. He goes on to sharewith the teacher a moving scene in which they are united in their appreciation ofHardy‘s verse, as well, perhaps, as by their common sense of exclusion from theheterosexual mainstream. Posner does not attempt to hide his sexuality and, though hispassion for Dakin is a source of anguish, his capacity for self-mockery prevents himbeing too distraught over it, at least initially.Posner gets into his chosen Oxbridge college by slavishly following Irwin‘s system ofturning received ideas on their head in the entrance examination, which in his caseinvolves him, a Jew, writing about the Holocaust with what the dons praise as a sense ofdetachment (p. 96). He is prepared to deny his heritage and his better judgement inorder to impress. Ultimately, Posner is unable to cope with the adult world, cutting atragic figure in the first and last scenes of Act Two. He is undone, arguably, by thissame inability to assert any true identity apart from devotion to and reliance upon theregard of others.Dakin is the only boy who is obviously happy at the end. He was always the mostconfident about his own sexual attractiveness. He matured early and is disinclined totake anything to heart. He is not unkind or thoughtless but the world has always beenopen to him – Hector, Irwin, Posner and Fiona all make room for him – and this allowshim to move through it with ease. He makes the best use of both Hector and Irwin and,in return, attempts to give them what he thinks they want. He has some intellectualdepth, his theory that literature is actually about losers (p. 46) being the response ofsomeone who does at least take an overview, whilst he is the one who understandsIrwin‘s pragmatism the best. Dakin saves Hector‘s job, though this is achieved byblackmailing the hapless Felix.Dakin does not seek a personal faith or credo, like Scripps, nor is beset by insecurities,like Posner. He shows no musical talent, as do the other two, and he offers no literary
  14. 14. quotations or references in the classroom. His acute awareness of the powerdimensions of historical situations is matched by a similar insight into the dynamics ofthe rivalry between Hector and Irwin. Like his mentor, Irwin, Dakin is destined toprosper, untroubled by self-doubt or scruples.Of the rest of the group, only Rudge is given an individuality remotely comparable tothese three. He comes across as the least sophisticated of them all, though this mightbe a front, as he is bright enough to write and talk at the entrance examinations inways designed to impress. Describing himself as dull and ordinary (p. 86), he neverseems to expect anything from school, university or himself. He picks up on Irwin‘smethods readily enough and is prepared to use them, though the irony in his judgementof the new teacher‘s ways which he confides to Mrs Lintott – It‘s cutting edge, miss. Itreally is. (p. 34) – shows that he‘s well aware that it is all some kind of game. He seemsto get on well with Dorothy, whose own teaching methods are characterised by a down-to-earth practicality. It is to her that he gives his memorable verdict on history as aprocess and a subject – just one fucking thingafter another (p. 85).Rudge appears to begenuinely proud of his career as ahouse builder, resenting perceived criticism from MrsLintott and decrying his years of being patronised. It is difficult to see just whatoverall impact his educational experience has had on him in a more positive sense.Akthar, Lockwood and Timms are less well defined as individuals, though we can notethat all three seem to take especial pleasure in ‗ribbing‘ both Hector and Irwin withtheir questions, usually accompanied with the appellation of ‗sir‘, which only serves toenhance the effect of gentle mockery. They provide much of the verbal wit and vitalityof the classroom scenes.QuotesDakin‘Irwin does like him. He seldom looks at anyone else.‘ (Posner-81)‗…he was the one who made me realise you were allowed to think like this‘ (47 Talkingabout Irwin)‗I don‘t understand it. I have never wanted to please anybody theway I do him, girls notexcepted.‘(76-Talking about Irwin)Posner‗Sir, I think I may be homosexual‘ (41)‗Oh Poz, with your spaniel heart. It will pass.‘ (Scripps-81)‗But I want to get into Oxford, Sir. If I do, Dakin might love me.‘ (42)ScrippsI figure I have to get through this romance with God now or else it‘ll be hanging aroundhalf my life.‘(45)
  15. 15. Whole text questionsAbout the History1. History itself is a subject in the play. In the play Dakin calls Irwin‘s methodsubjunctive history, the history of what might have been. Do you think there isvalue in Irwin‘s approach to looking at historical events? Why or why not?2. In addition to world historical events we are also given a glimpse at thepersonal histories of the characters in the play. What do their personalhistories reveal? How do their remembrances differ?3. Much of the play is not about poetry but literature. Many of the poets quotedwrote during World War I. What resonances exist between the young men atwar and the young men in the play?About the Play1. The three teachers, Mrs.Lintott, Mr. Hector and Mr. Irwin, have strikinglydifferent teaching methods and goals. Discuss the merits and disadvantagesof their competing pedagogies.2. Irwin says he does not think there is time for Hector‘s type of teaching anymore. What does he mean? What is lost with the loss of Hector?3. Hector is a problematic character in the play. He is a gifted teacher butsome of his actions are inappropriate. Can one reconcile Hector‘s behaviorwith his teaching?4. Mrs.Lintott is the lone woman in the play. What is her role both as aneducator and historian? Is it significant that she is surrounded by men, both inthe school and in her work? How do you interpret her outburst about the role ofwomen in history?5. The characters in the play occasionally step outside themselves to comment onthe action of the play, either within the moment or sometimes from a perspectiveyears later. How does this commentary help us understand the play?

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