Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

History Boys – Alan Bennett

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 10, 2009

I owe in equal measure a large part of my education to the kindness of my teachers and parents. A smaller portion of credit will have to rest with me for my efforts around application of capabilities, diligence and sincerity. The now lost world in which I received my education was markedly different from what exists today. The commitment of my teachers to impart the best they had and the role of state in providing the necessary infrastructure to draw upon have been two vital contributors. This hindsight gratitude is an all too familiar mode of thinking among a majority of my co-evals. As we moved along, somewhere the intensity in meaning of education started to get diluted: In the place of a noble aspiration, a higher percieved value and a richer outlook which emphasised education and learning as an end in itself, one started witnessing the display of an aggressive tendency of acquiring monetarily enriching degrees that diluted the overall spirit of education. I myself was on this declining continuum. Especially in the realm of humanities this decline was much more pronounced than on the side of technical or vocational streams. Literature, History and other social sciences became the refuge of the percieved dregs of the classroom. In a way children who opted for these subjects were treated as failures in academics

The world I came from still had a handful of inspiring instances of children arriving at the hallowed portals of esteemed educational institutions despite economic and other disadvantages. The entry criteria included evaluation on attributes that had a touch of completeness. There was an emphasis on a well rounded generality and less emphasis on technique. That balance has changed quite dramatically in the recent past and has started leaning more towards the technique of tackling an exam or undergoing the rigorous drill that positions one well in the tricks of the trade. I think this decline is not just a India or developing world centric change, even west appears to have witnessed this decline – although gradual in relative terms. It is this general shift in orientation of education and the predicament of eight bright students of a local school aspiring to make it to one of the various Oxbridge colleges to pursue history the theme of Alan Bennett’s wonderfully entertaining play ” The History Boys

The triumvariate of teachers viz. Mr.Hector, Irwin and Mrs.Linnot have different philosophies of education. Irwin is a disappointed pretender to the heritage of one of the Oxbridge colleges and believes that more than the content, one needs to have technique to appear intelligent and clever in front of the examiners.  Hector believes that education should prepare an individual in a holistic way to face the vagaries of life and Mrs.Linnot comes out as a feeble balance between these two positions. They all are driven by an ambituous headmaster who is intent on improving the position of his school among the popularity league tables. His own position and priorities are best summarised when he says: “Mr.Hector has an old fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier. After all, it’s not how much literature that they know. What matters is how much they know about literature“. The alignment of views between the headmaster and Irwin lead to alienating of Hector leading to a subtle tremor of staff politics

The eight students who while keen on getting into one of the Oxbridge colleges to study history and align with Irwin for the purpose are sympathetic to the approach of Hector and realise its inherent merit.  It is this portrayal of the tussle of philosophies towards education and the ensuing hilariously irreverent conversations that bring out the wonderfully appealing quality of this play. Bennet does a wonderful job of bringing out the liberal ethos prevalent at the school through these conversations. Consider a few of these conversations:

Timms: Sir, I don’t always understand poetry
Hector: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever
Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet
Hector: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you’ll have antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you are dying. We’re making your death beds here, boys


Mrs.Linnot: ….. Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? Why do you think there are no women historians on TV?
Timms: No tits?
Hector: Hit that boy!

Bennet believes in the humanising power of literature and one gets to see that portrayal not only in “History Boys” but also in his subsequent novella “An Uncommon Reader“. The discussions around poetry and literature in general are pointers to that:

Dakin: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers
Scripps: No
Dakin: It’s a consolation. All literature is consolation
Scripps: No it isn’t. What about when it’s celebration? Joy?
Dakin: But it’s written when the joy is over. Finished. So even when it’s joy, it’s grief. It’s consolation. That’s why it gets written down. I tell you, whatever Hector says, I find literature really lowering


Hector: The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours

Through the conversations between the boys and Mr.Hector, Irwin and Mrs.Linnot, Bennet introduces the readers to the significance of some of the great poets like W.H.Auden, Philip Larkin, A.E. Housman and even the poetical side of Thomas Hardy (what a superb poem Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” is!!)

Bennet moves the play between the present and the future and the boys make it to various Oxbridge colleges. The teachers in their own ways are redeemed and rejoice in the success of their students and yet the reader is left with a lingeringly sad feeling about the decline in the quality, approach and purpose of that noble and vital activity of education. The gravity of some of the conversations, the humour and the overall theme of “History Boys” demonstrate a touch of Bennet‘s genius. It is one of those rare pieces of modern literature that I would unhesitatingly classify as a masterpiece

One Response to “History Boys – Alan Bennett”

  1. I saw this play. Pretty impressive.

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