For all sorts of odd and silly reasons it had been a long time - far too long - since Doreen and I last had an evening at the theatre. As much as anything then, this post is in celebration of the fact that a few evenings back we broke the mould and went to see Alan Bennett's The History Boys. According to the progamme notes, the play had been "quietly maturing" in Alan Bennett's mind for 60 years. The seeds were sown when an ambitious headmaster persuaded him and seven of his peers to apply for Cambridge. You may know the play well. It has been around for six or seven years now and has been made into a film. I did not. What higher praise can I give it than to say it is up to Alan Bennett's best.
The staff of Bennett's imagined school consist of a Headmaster and three other members of the teaching staff, each one with a philosophy and outlook wildly different from any of the others. Most of the arguments that I have heard in the staff rooms I have known through the years found echoes, if only dim ones, somewhere in the play. The headmaster sees passing exams and getting a place at university - especially Oxford or Cambridge - as the primary, if not sole, purpose of education. His one motivation seems to be a desire for the school to move even further up the league tables. Against which, there is an English master called Hector who believes that exams and educational strategies aimed at passing exams are a complete waste if time. Hector believes in the value of knowledge for its own sake, but has an unpleasant sexual side to his personality, which Bennett draws out in the play whilst cleverly keeping the audience on Hector's side. I saw parallels with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in this and in much else.Hector comes to a sticky end, as does a homosexual boy, whose closeness to Hector finally gives the headmaster the excuse he needs to get rid of Hector. The boys, too, are distinctly and differently drawn and the interplay is both fascinating and amusing. At times hilarious, as for much of Hector's time with them they are engaged in enactments of classic weepies, such as Brief Encounter One moment that I really en joyed and seemed to typify the play occurred after Hector and a temporary teacher had agreed to share. Hector is asked by one of the boys who is going to teach them. Does it matter? asks Hector. Yes sir, is the reply, we need to know what sort of pupils we're to be. Shall we be smart for him or studious for you.