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The major themes in the history boys a play by alan bennett

The National's new adventurer [interview with Nicholas Hytner] 21 Jun 2004 Temperamentally I cleave to that kind of teacher and that kind of teaching — while at the same time not thinking it practical. I suppose that the three teachers came out of trying to reconcile that. I think plays do tend to come out of things that you can't actually resolve other than by writing a play about them.

The truth behind the History Boys

Though I'm nervous about going too much into how these things work because I'm frightened they might not work the next time. NH I think the play has generally been taken to be an unequivocal endorsement of Hector and his approach. It never felt like that to me.

I think most parents would be, to a certain degree, dubious about a teacher who had absolutely no regard for results. You'd be more likely to support the headmaster's obsession with getting your children into university. The play is intellectually even-handed. There is nothing in it that says Hector right, Irwin wrong, Mrs Lintott wrong — and yet emotionally, it veers the other way.

AB I think, of the three teachers, Stephen Campbell Moore, who plays Irwin, has the hardest job because he doesn't have the audience's sympathy until two thirds of the way through the second act.

Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have the audience on their side whereas he — who is teaching and getting results, which, in the ordinary way, parents would approve of — is not thought to be sympathetic until he reveals himself as quite vulnerable. That came as a surprise to me when I saw it rehearsed.

In a sense, it takes the actors to show you what you've written. NH For those who haven't seen the play, Hector is the teacher who has no programme, who believes, to quote Housman, "all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use". Mrs Lintott believes that what the boys require is a firm foundation of fact. Irwin is the teacher brought in to get the boys into Oxbridge. He considers the truth to be something that can be manipulated to impress examiners and regards culture, poetry, art to be commodities that you can buy into to spice things up.

That is essentially the ideological battleground of the play. So, do you think there is such a thing as absolute historical truth? AB I don't know. That's one of the reasons why I wrote the play. In the words of Rudge in the play, "History is just the major themes in the history boys a play by alan bennett fucking thing after another," which seems quite a brutish thing to say but was actually not said by him originally, but by Herbert Butterfield who was Professor of History at Cambridge in the '40s, only as he put it: The thing that struck me is that on the first night, we had the major themes in the history boys a play by alan bennett fire which set the sprinkler system off.

At the end of that afternoon we had had our final notes session and everybody was in an up-beat mood because we'd had a week of very good previews, and I think Nick said, exactly as somebody says in the play, "Oh, nothing can go wrong now.

So, just as happens in the play, events took us by surprise. And I don't get much further than that. History is one bloody thing after another. NH What about the other much debated topic in the play, the use of literature. Is it really enough to know literature by heart, or does literature provide us with something more practical?

AB I think everybody wants to have learnt poems by heart at school. They look back to an age when their parents, or maybe their grandparents, could recite verse. My mother could recite very garbled and over-dramatised bits of poetry she'd learnt at school. And whenever she went into poetry-reciting mode, the pose she took up was exactly the one she'd taken up when she was 10 years old.

But people do feel that they ought to have this ingrained knowledge of poetry and regret not having it. It seems to me, in Hector's words, it is a kind of "insulation for the mind". And when you do come across people who have literature at their fingertips and can quote things off by heart, then it is very impressive and enviable. NH But Hector is not the most brilliant English teacher.

He uses quotations that are not particularly apposite when he is in trouble, and his assertion that you don't need to understand poetry to appreciate it seems dodgy at best. AB I think it's true he's not an ideal teacher and he is sloppy and quotes stuff almost at random. But the boys see that. They see the shortcomings of Hector, Irwin and Mrs Lintott.

I wanted to show that the boys are the ones who know more than any of the teachers. They will go their own way and they will carve out their own futures.

They will take from each of these teachers what they want. That's what the slightly less than idyllic last scene shows. The boys are not wholly nostalgic, nor are they wholly materialistic, and when they say what they've done in life, that is empiricism and experience winning through. NH Many of the characters live in a state — which I find characteristic of your plays — of frustrated possibility. Scripps, Posner, Irwin and Hector all, to some degree, are waiting for life to happen.

The Purpose of Education ThemeTracker

AB I waited ages for that! Such criticism I've seen of the play is that I have put myself into it too obviously — and that I am Posner. But everybody watching the play says "I'm Posner" because he is the boy with a yearning, who seems to be getting nowhere and so is the saddest, and everybody sees themselves when young in that kind, protective way.

NH This seems to me peculiarly English. Americans have found it unbearable that Posner turns into what they call a loser. An English audience simply expects it! I had an email from a very smart American friend saying, "But he's put up with all this teasing at school, he's popular with the boys, surely he would turn into a TV director. But perhaps it is all to do with the English will to fail. We were conscious, before the play started, that because we'd worked together successfully so much including the film of The Madness of George III, this will be the fifth timethere was a tremendous feeling that now we were going to come a cropper.

You wouldn't get that in America.

The History Boys

It's such an English feeling and I'm very often of that mind myself. And you must often get that with the National Theatre — the sense that you're having too good a time? NH This is a terrible thing to admit.

I feel guilty every time it's not a flop. AB I've never had so much fun as rehearsing this play. We had a wonderful time. So by the time we came to the first preview, although how the audience took it wasn't actually irrelevant, at the same time you did feel you'd had such a good time, that was the important thing. There was a lot of discussion before we started rehearsals proper about the themes of the play and the people and poets who are mentioned in it.

If there's a lot of talk before rehearsal I generally get quite impatient, but this time I did think it was very valuable and it was a great contrast to my other school play, the first play I ever wrote, Forty Years On. That was as stiff with literary references as this play is but in 1968 we made no attempt whatsoever to educate the boys about what was in the play.

It was partly that in The History Boys the boys have to initiate the questions, so they have to know what they are talking about, whereas the boys in 1968 didn't.

But it is also that the attitude to actors has changed since that time, and that they're accorded more respect now and are treated more humanely. NH We respected them a great deal more than they respected us. AB The thing I liked the most was that at my age, they still treated me like a human being.

You don't normally the major themes in the history boys a play by alan bennett that from young people. I have to say, though, that being treated like a human being meant that they took the piss out of me relentlessly. There wasn't a honeymoon period when there was a bit of respect, not to say veneration. There was never any at all. The first day, when I was coming in to the theatre, Dominic Cooper, who plays Dakin, was lounging in the stage door and someone said "What are you doing here Dominic?

AB First of all we cut it quite a lot. After Hector has been given the sack at the end of the first act, I'd written a fairly ordinary classroom scene for the beginning of the second act and we found that wasn't taking the story any further.

I then had to rewrite that scene so that you felt that it was progressing.

Maybe a better dramatist than I am would have imagined that, but I didn't see it. NH One of the hazards of being a writer in the rehearsals is that the director and the actors can say, "This isn't working, Alan, can you rewrite it please? But in fact it was wonderful to have the writer there. AB This sounds too cosy, but it requires forbearance, both on my part and on yours. Most directors would be nervous of having somebody there who chips in.

It's only because we've worked together a lot that we don't mind. And if it's going the wrong way, I just keep quiet for a bit. When I think of some of the stuff I said at rehearsals, I go hot and cold at the foolishness of it. I made such stupid suggestions.

The History Boys – Alan Bennett

But if you've worked together before, you don't mind. The thing that always impresses me is the courage of the actors.

Before we actually started rehearsal, we had a read-through of the play in rough draft so that I could see how it did or didn't work, and then I could go back and do another draft. We had a scratch cast which included four of the actors who actually ended up in the play. They'd never seen the play before and couldn't pronounce a lot of the names — the ideas were totally new to them — and in any other circumstances would have been making utter fools of themselves.

And yet they did it. This is why I get so infuriated by "luvvies" as a term. Actors are brave creatures really: And they're making a fool of themselves on my behalf and I find that immensely heartening.