"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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Faber & Faber
April 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The History Boys: A Play by Alan Bennett
The History Boys: A Play
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'�charpe.
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.
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?
'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.'
'Vex not his ghost. O let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.'
'O, he is gone indeed.'
'The wonder is he hath endured so long.
He but usurped this life.'
Bell goes. Hector sits up.
'I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.'
'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!'
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?
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.
The Headmaster leaves as Hector comes in.
MRS LINTOTT Didn't you try for Cambridge?
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.
HECTOR No chance.
MRS LINTOTT No. Our fearless leader has made up his mind.
And they are bright, brighter than last year's. But that's not enough apparently.
HECTOR It never was, even in my day.
MRS LINTOTT Poor sods.
SCRIPPS I'd been on playground duty, so I saw him on what must have been his first morning waiting outside the study. I thought he was a new boy, which of course he was, so I smiled.
Then Felix turned up.
Irwin is a young man, about twenty-five or so.
HEADMASTER You are?
IRWIN The supply teacher.
HEADMASTER Quite so.
He beckons Irwin cagily into the study.
SCRIPPS Hector had said that if I wanted to write I should keep a notebook, and there must have been something furtive about Irwin's arrival because I wrote it down. I called it clandestine, a word I'd just learnt and wasn't sure how to pronounce.
HEADMASTER The examinations are in December, which gives us three months at the outside ... Well, you were at Cambridge, you know the form.
IRWIN Oxford, Jesus.
HEADMASTER I thought of going, but this was the fifties. Change was in the air. A spirit of adventure.
IRWIN So, where did you go?
HEADMASTER I was a geographer. I went to Hull.
IRWIN Oh. Larkin.
HEADMASTER Everybody says that. 'Hull? Oh, Larkin.'
I don't know about the poetry ... as I say, I was a geographer ... but as a librarian he was pitiless. The Himmler of the Accessions Desk. And now, we're told, women in droves.
Art. They get away with murder.
They are a likely lot, the boys. All keen. One oddity.
Rudge. Determined to try for Oxford and Christ Church of all places. No hope. Might get in at Loughborough in a bad year. Otherwise all bright. But they need polish. Edge. Your job. We are low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar School, Haberdashers' Aske's. Leighton Park. Or is that an open prison? No matter.
There is a vacancy in history.
IRWIN (thoughtfully) That's very true.
HEADMASTER In the school.
HEADMASTER Get me scholarships, Irwin, pull us up the table, and it is yours. I am corseted by the curriculum, but I can find you three lessons a week.
IRWIN Not enough.
HEADMASTER I agree. However, Mr Hector, our long-time English master, is General Studies. There is passion there.
Or, as I prefer to call it, commitment. But not curriculum-directed. Not curriculum-directed at all.
In the circumstances we may be able to filch an hour. (going) You are very young.
Grow a moustache.
I am thinking classroom control.
Classroom. Music. Posner sings some Piaf.
HECTOR O� voudriez-vous travailler cet apr�s-midi?
RUDGE Dans un garage.
BOYS Non, non.
SCRIPPS Pas encore. Ayez piti� de nous.
HECTOR Dakin. O� voudriez-vous travailler aujourd'hui?
DAKIN Je voudrais travailler ... dans une maison de passe.
BOYS Qu'est ce que c'est?
Qu'est-ce qu'une maison de passe?
POSNER A brothel.
HECTOR Tr�s bien. Mais une maison de passe o� tous les clients utilisent le subjonctif ou le conditionnel, oui?
He motions to Dakin, who goes off.
Dakin knocks on door.
Voil�. D�j� un client!
Qui est la femme de chambre?
POSNER Moi. Je suis la femme de chambre.
HECTOR Comment appelez-vous?
POSNER Je m'appelle Simone.
Dakin knocks again.
AKTHAR Simone, le monsieur ne peut pas attendre.
Posner opens the door and curtseys.
POSNER Bonjour, monsieur.
DAKIN Bonjour, ch�rie.
POSNER Entrez, s''il vous plait.
Voil� votre lit et voici votre prostitu�e.
HECTOR Oh. Ici on appelle un chat un chat.
DAKIN Merci, madame.
DAKIN Je veux m'�tendre sur le lit.
HECTOR Je voudrais ... I would like to stretch out on the bed in the conditional or the subjunctive.
Dakin makes to lie down.
POSNER Mais les chaussures, monsieur, pas sur le lit.
Et vos pantalons, s'il vous plait.
DAKIN Excusez-moi, mademoiselle.
POSNER Oh! Quelles belles jambes!
DAKIN Watch it.
POSNER Et maintenant ... Claudine (Timms).
DAKIN Oui, la prostitu�e, s'il vous plait.
Scripps plays piano accompaniment, a version of 'La Vie en Rose'.
CROWTHER Monsieur, je pensais que vous voudriez des pr�liminaires?
DAKIN Quels pr�liminaires?
POSNER Claudine. Quels pr�liminaires sont sur le menu?
TIMMS (Claudine) A quel prix?
DAKIN Dix francs.
TIMMS (Claudine) Dix francs? Pour dix francs je peux vous montrer ma prodigieuse poitrine.
DAKIN Et maintenant, pourrais-je caresser la poitrine?
TIMMS (Claudine) �a vous couterait quinze francs.
Pour vingt francs vous pouvez poser votre bouche sur ma poitrine en agitant ...
LOCKWOOD En agitant quoi?
There is a knock at the door.
POSNER Un autre client. (He lets them in.)
HECTOR Ah, cher Monsieur le Directeur.
The Headmaster comes in with Irwin.
HEADMASTER Mr Hector, I hope I'm not ...
Hector holds up an admonitory finger.
HECTOR L'Anglais, c'est interdit. Ici on ne parle que fran�ais, en accordant une importance particuli�re au subjonctif.
HEADMASTER Oh, ah.
Et qu'est ce-que ce passe ici?
Pourquoi cet gar�on ... Dakin, isn't it? ... est sans ses ... trousers?
HECTOR Quelqu'un? Ne soit pas timide. Dites � cher Monsieur le Directeur ce que nous faisons.
The boys are frozen.
DAKIN Je suis un homme qui ...
HECTOR Vous n'�tes pas un homme. Vous �tes un soldat ... un soldat bless�; vous comprenez, cher Monsieur le Directeur ... soldat bless�?
HEADMASTER Wounded soldier, of course, yes.
HECTOR Ici c'est un h�pital en Belgique.
HEADMASTER Belgique? Pourquoi Belgique?
AKTHAR A Ypres, sir. Ypres. Pendant la Guerre Mondiale Num�ro Une.
HECTOR C'est �a. Dakin est un soldat bless�, un mutil� de guerre et les autres sont des m�decins, infirmi�res et tout le personnel d'un grand �tablissement medical et th�rapeutique.
Continuez, mes enfants.
HEADMASTER Mais ...
A boy begins to moan.
AKTHAR Qu'il souffre!
LOCKWOOD Ma m�re! Ma m�re!
AKTHAR Il appelle sa m�re.
LOCKWOOD Mon p�re!
AKTHAR Il appelle son p�re.
LOCKWOOD Ma tante!
HEADMASTER Sa tante?
TIMMS La famille enti�re.
HECTOR Il est distrait. II est distrait.
IRWIN Il est commotionn�, peut-�tre?
The classroom falls silent at this unexpected intrusion.
IRWIN Commotionn�. Shell-shocked.
There is a perceptible moment.
HECTOR C'est possible. Commotionn�. Oui, c'est le mot juste.
HEADMASTER Permettez-moi d'introduire M. Irwin, notre nouveau professeur.
HEADMASTER Ce que je veux ...
HECTOR Veuille ... veu ... ille ...
HEADMASTER Vei-uille. Enough of this ... silliness. Not silliness, no ... but ... Mr Hector, you are aware that these pupils are Oxbridge candidates.
HECTOR Are they? Are you sure? Nobody has told me.
HEADMASTER Mr Irwin will be coaching them, but it's a question of time. I have found him three lessons a week and I was wondering ...
HECTOR No, Headmaster. (He covers his ears.)
HEADMASTER Purely on a temporary basis. It will be the last time, I promise.
HECTOR Last time was the last time also.
HEADMASTER I am thinking of the boys.
HECTOR I, too. Non. Absolument non. Non. Non. Non. C'est hors de question. Et puis, si vous voulez m'excuser, je dois continuer la le�on. A tout � l'heure.
Headmaster looks at Irwin.
They go as the bell goes.
RUDGE It's true, though, sir. We don't have much time.
HECTOR Now, who goes home?
There are no offers.
Surely I can give someone a lift?
Who's on pillion duty?
DAKIN Not me, sir. Going into town.
CROWTHER Off for a run, sir.
AKTHAR Computer club, sir.
POSNER I'll come, sir.
HECTOR No. No. Never mind.
SCRIPPS (resignedly) I'll come, sir.
HECTOR Ah, Scripps.
SCRIPPS The things I do for Jesus. (As he goes he gives Dakin the finger.)
POSNER I'd go.
I'm never asked.
DAKIN You don't fit the bill.
TIMMS Me neither.
DAKIN I tell you, be grateful.
IRWIN (distributing exercise books) Dull.
A triumph ... the dullest of the lot.
DAKIN I got all the points.
IRWIN I didn't say it was wrong. I said it was dull.
Its sheer competence was staggering.
DAKIN Actually, sir, I know tradition requires it of the eccentric schoolmaster, but do you mind not throwing the books? They tend to fall apart.
CROWTHER It's the way we've been taught, sir.
LOCKWOOD Mrs Lintott discourages the dramatic, sir.
'This is history not histrionics.'
TIMMS You've got crap handwriting, sir.
I read Irwin as 'I ruin'. Significant or what?
IRWIN It's your eyesight that's bad and we know what that's caused by.
TIMMS Sir! Is that a coded reference to the mythical dangers of self-abuse?
IRWIN Possibly. It might even be a joke.
TIMMS A joke, sir. Oh. Are jokes going to be a feature, sir? We need to know as it affects our mind-set.
AKTHAR You don't object to our using the expression, 'mind-set', do you, sir? Mr Hector doesn't care for it. He says if he catches any of us using it he'll kick our arses from bollocks to sundown, sir.
Irwin regards them for a moment or two in silence.
IRWIN At the time of the Reformation there were fourteen foreskins of Christ preserved, but it was thought that the church of St John Lateran in Rome had the authentic prepuce.
DAKIN Don't think we're shocked by your mention of the word 'foreskin', sir.
CROWTHER No, sir. Some of us even have them.
LOCKWOOD Not Posner, though, sir. Posner's like, you know, Jewish.
It's one of several things Posner doesn't have.
Posner mouths 'Fuck off.'
LOCKWOOD That's not racist, though, sir.
CROWTHER Isn't it?
LOCKWOOD It's race-related, but it's not racist.
AKTHAR Actually, I've not got one either. Moslems don't.
Another pause while Irwin regards the class.
IRWIN Has anybody been to Rome?
No? Well, you will be competing against boys and girls who have. And they will have been to Rome and Venice, Florence and Perugia, and they will doubtless have done courses on what they have seen there. So they will know when they come to do an essay like this on the Church on the eve of the Reformation that some silly nonsense on the foreskins of Christ will come in handy so that their essays, unlike yours, will not be dull.
Think bored examiners.
Think sixty, think a hundred and sixty papers even more competent than the last so that the fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine.
Come the fourteen foreskins of Christ and they'll think they've won the pools.
Irwin pauses as before.
You should hate them.
CROWTHER Who, sir?
IRWIN Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race. Put head to head with them and, on the evidence of these essays, you have none of you got a hope.
CROWTHER So why are we bothering?
IRWIN I don't know.
I don't know at all.
You want it, I imagine. Or your parents want it. The Headmaster certainly wants it.
But I wouldn't waste the money. Judging by these, there is no point.
Go to Newcastle and be happy.
Of course, there is another way.
The bell rings and he is going out.
DAKIN Yes, sir?
IRWIN Don't take the piss.
There isn't time. (He goes.)
TIMMS What a wanker.
DAKIN They all have to do it, don't they?
CROWTHER Do what?
DAKIN Show you they're still in the game. Foreskins and stuff. 'Ooh, sir! You devil!'
SCRIPPS Have a heart. He's only five minutes older than we are.
DAKIN What happened with Hector? On the bike?
SCRIPPS As per. Except I managed to get my bag down.
I think he thought he'd got me going. In fact it was my Tudor Economic Documents, Volume Two.
They stop talking as Posner comes up.
POSNER Because I was late growing up I am not included in this kind of conversation. I am not supposed to understand. Actually, they would be surprised how much I know about them and their bodies and everything else.
SCRIPPS Dakin's navel, I remember, was small and hard like an unripe blackberry. Posner's navel was softer and more like that of the eponymous orange. Posner envied Dakin his navel and all the rest of him. That this envy might amount to love does not yet occur to Posner, as to date it has only caused him misery and dissatisfaction.
Posner goes and they resume the conversation.
DAKIN I wish sometimes he'd just go for it.
SCRIPPS He does go for it. That's the trouble.
DAKIN In controlled conditions. Not on the fucking bike. I'm terrified.
SCRIPPS Of the sex?
DAKIN No. Of the next roundabout.
Rudge is having sex, apparently.
RUDGE Only on Fridays. I need the weekend free for rugger. And golf.
Nobody thinks I have a hope in this exam.
DAKIN Currently I am seeing Fiona, the Headmaster's secretary, not that he knows. We haven't done it yet, but when we do I'm hoping one of the times might be on his study floor.
DAKIN It's like the Headmaster says: one should have targets.