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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


The History Boys

Alan Bennett

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The History Boys

Title: The History Boys
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Drama
Written: 2004
Length: 128 pages
Availability: The History Boys - US
The History Boys - UK
The History Boys - Canada
The History Boys - India
  • With an Introduction by the author
  • First performed at the National Theatre in London, 18 May, 2004, in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner
  • The History Boys wasmade into a film in 2006, also directed by Nicholas Hytner

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Our Assessment:

A- : sharp dialogue, and even the predictable plot unfolds quite nicely

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A+ 19/5/2004 Charles Spencer
The Guardian A 19/5/2004 Michael Billington
The Guardian . 26/5/2004 Michael Billington
New Statesman . 31/5/2004 Rosie Millard
The NY Sun . 24/4/2006 Eric Grode
The NY Times A+ 24/4/2006 Ben Brantley
The New Yorker A 1/5/2006 John Lahr
TLS . 11/6/2004 Keith Miller
The Washington Post A+ 24/4/2006 Peter Marks

  Review Consensus:

  Most -- but not all -- very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) play that strikes me as one of the finest Alan Bennett has ever written. The first thing that you notice is that he is in spectacularly effervescent comic form. His account of a group of clever schoolboys at a northern grammar school in the early eighties, studying for Oxbridge entrance exams, is packed with superb one-liners that are surely destined to enter the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. (...) But this is a play with depth as well as dazzle. (...) But the play is intensely moving as well as thought-provoking and funny." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "(N)othing could diminish the incendiary achievement of this subtle, deep-wrought and immensely funny play about the value and meaning of education. (...) What is astonishing is how much territory Bennett manages to cover: the teaching and meaning of history, inflexible and imaginative approaches to education, and the idea, as in Forty Years On, that a school has the potential to be a metaphor for English life. (...) But behind the almost ceaseless laughter lies a hymn to the joys of language, intellectual exploration and inspirational educators. (...) In short, a superb, life-enhancing play." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Countless dramatists before Bennett have gone back to school for drama. But Bennett's play outshines its predecessors because it is about the tragic and fulfilling aspects of teaching, about the changing face of England and ultimately about the nature of history itself. At first it seems a bit wild and ramshackle: a collection of very funny and moving scenes without any visible grand design. (...) The History Boys defies categorisation -- and for this reason, it is the most experimental play in London. It owes little to past models. It subversively mixes up drama, comedy, poetry, popular song and ancient hymns, anecdote and aphorism, WH Auden and Gracie Fields in an eclectically English way." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Am I the only person to find Alan Bennett's new play -- The History Boys at the National -- a damp squib ? It may have been a world premiere, but I sat through it with the creeping suspicion that I'd seen it many times before.(...) There's nothing wrong with intense classroom dramas, but this is a play whose sole purpose seems to be to restate fondly held notions -- such as that Oxbridge, though daft, is still the best, particularly if you don't take it seriously." - Rosie Millard, New Statesman

  • "The History Boys is an unexpectedly moving mixture of intellectual verve and sexual angst." - Eric Grode, The New York Sun

  • "(M)adly enjoyable (.....) The big issue in The History Boys is the emphasis on presentation over substance -- on the ascendancy of spin." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "In addition to these well-told stories of the schoolroom, Bennett provides a larger and more subversive critique of the nature of British public discourse -- or, more specifically, of the expertise in bluffing that he sees, correctly, as a legacy of an Oxbridge education." - John Lahr, The New Yorker

  • "The play is a curious mixture of comic, political, philosophical and melodramatic elements which only sometimes mesh. The dialogue is, as usual with Bennett, fine-tuned, arch and bitter-sweet, self-conscious (...), clearly as great a pleasure for the actors as the audience. On repression and unfulfillment he is as good as Larkin" - Keith Miller, Times Literary Supplement

  • "You're prone to swoon a bit embarrassingly when a play is as bracingly smart as the one that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre. Playwright Alan Bennett has pulled off that rarest of feats, a comedy of ideas both devilishly entertaining and true to the heart." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The History Boys is set in the 1980s, in an English grammar school, the focus a group of boys studying for their entrance examinations in history for Oxford and Cambridge. There's a sort of timeless feel to the setting; as Bennett explains in his lengthy Introduction, he wasn't striving for period-accuracy, and except for particular references (and the language that is used), it could almost be set any time over the past half-century (and has something of a 50s feel to it).
       The dominant pedagogue is Hector, who has his own ideas about teaching (and, for example, locks the door on his lessons). He feels he's there to give his students the "wherewithal to resist" the education being pounded into them by the surrounding system. As one student explains:

Mr Hector's stuff's not meant for the exam, sir. It's to make us more rounded human beings.
       The ambitious Headmaster, desperate for the prestige getting some boys into Oxbridge would bring, isn't thrilled by what Hector does, and brings in another teacher to share the preparation-load. Irwin has a different approach, to history and exam taking:
Find a proposition, invert it, then look around for proofs. That was the technique and it was as formal in its way as the disciplines of the medieval schoolmen.
       As Irwin points out, it does help the students that practise it stand out from the rest -- which is half the battle.
       The History Boys isn't merely a contrast in styles, of course. Irwin and Hector are the polar figures, but the boys (and the Headmaster) add to the mix, and Bennett nicely spins them all about.
       It's not all about finding a future and achieving exam-success, however. These are teenage boys, after all, and so sex is in the air. Somewhat disappointingly, Bennett opts for the easiest complication: Hector, despite an (admittedly unlikely) wife, likes to take one of the boys out for a spin on his motorcycle after school. And while they zip along he likes to ... well, apparently: fondle their testicles, though it doesn't go any further than that. The boys are generally unenthusiastic, but they're good sports and take their turns. Not surprisingly, this turns out quite badly (it's hard to be discreet on the open road) -- though disaster is, at first, averted. Ultimately, however, complete disaster does come -- though even that is not a complete surprise (as the first Irwin-appearance on the stage -- a jump ahead in time, years after most of the play-action -- suggests from the get-go)
       Irwin turns out to be more interesting than he originally seems. He's not merely the house-contrarian, and when he begins sharing teaching duties with Hector their at-odds styles and focus (as well as their personalities) make for an interesting atmosphere, leading in somewhat unexpected directions. Particularly enjoyable are the student-teacher dynamics, the students drawn to their teachers but also aware of their weaknesses (deciding, for example, that Irwin is: "meretricious but not disingenuous").
       This is an Alan Bennett play, and so the dialogue is sharp and clever from beginning to end. This isn't typical (or, for the most part, realistic) classroom banter, but it is loads of fun, and there's enough pleasure to be found in the text alone. Still, there's a lot packed into this play, including questions of history (and historical accounts and interpretations) and art ("Art wins in the end", one of the students notes, and that definitely seems to be Bennett's opinion). It's also about (social) class. And another obvious issue is the purpose and nature of education: how do you make men out of boys (sorry, no girls at this school) ? Hector, for one, is unimpressed by this school and by Oxbridge: "There is a world elsewhere", he wants to convince his boys -- and probably does a fairly good job of it, despite their like lemming-like eagerness to gain the proper places. Finally, there's the sex, which seems the least convincing aspect of the play -- perhaps because its full complexity isn't explored (Bennett can't get himself to do much more than go in for some testicle-fondling -- with the (little) heterosexual sex sounding even more contrived).
       The History Boys is a delight, because of what Bennett can do -- the play of words, the mix of allusions, simply what he tries to pull off on the stage. It doesn't all work, and some of the play seems much too simplistic, but what he does well he does so well that one can readily forgive the rest. Well worthwhile.

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The History Boys: Reviews: The History Boys - the film: Alan Bennett: Other books by Alan Bennett under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Drama

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About the Author:

       British author, playwright, and actor Alan Bennett appeared in Beyond the Fringe and has written numerous highly acclaimed works.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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