One-Minute Book Reviews

October 8, 2006

The Afterlife of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:46 pm

A Tony Award-winning play about the purpose of education that speaks to the age of No Child Left Behind

The History Boys. A Play by Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber/FSG, 109 pp., $13, paperback.

Once I was in a book group that, at one meeting a year, read a play aloud instead of discussing a book. This tradition had many virtues, not the least of which was that it meant that, at least once a year, everybody finished the assigned reading.

What play would you choose if you were going to read one aloud? You might consider The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s smart and timely satire of the cult of novelty in education. I saw and admired the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony Award for best play. But you don’t need to have seen the stage version to enjoy the latest play from the author of The Madness of George III.

The History Boys has its roots in Bennett’s education in Leeds in the 1950s, but it takes place mostly in the present. And its themes are ripe for the age of the No Child Left Behind Act. What is the purpose of education? Is it to prepare students for tests or for life? These questions bob and weave through the classroom run by Douglas Hector, an an aging English teacher at an undistinguished British boarding school. Hector believes that tests are the enemy of education, and his sixth-form boys are happy to go along until a young teacher arrives to prepare them for their university entrance exams. The newcomer insists that to get into Oxford or Cambridge, the boys need an intellectual gimmick, such as a willingness to argue that “those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbor were the Japanse and that the real culprit was President Roosevelt.” Anybody who thinks he can’t prevail probably hasn’t spent time lately on an American campus.

In some ways, The History Boys is about ideas more than people, especially in the second half, which builds toward an ending too dark for what has preceded it. This makes the play less poignant and cohesive than Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, set on similar ground decades earlier. But next to much of what has made it to Broadway recently, The History Boys shines. Its spirit never strays far from that of the lines by Walt Whitman that Hector quotes for his students: “The untold want by life and land n’er granted/Now Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.”

Best line: “Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Worst line: The play has a brief, campy scene in French that delighted Broadway audiences but might defeat a book club that doesn’t have at least one member who translate such lines as, “Qui est la femme de chambre? … Moi, je suis la femme de chambre.”

Recommended if … you’d love to read a recent play that doesn’t require somebody to sing “Memories.”

Consider reading also: The Browning Version (Samuel French, 2000) by Terence Rattigan.

Published: April 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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