The History Boys
Sexuality in The History Boys
The complex exploration of homosexual relations that break the boundaries between pupils and teachers should be typically identified as scandalous, and as a form of paedophilia in a school. However, Alan Bennett presents the issue at a modest grammar school in Sheffield in a radically different manner. For Bennett’s characters in The History Boys, such contact seems to be merely a normal aspect of school life.
Hector’s character is constructed to be that of a “humane generalist” as depicted by John Sunderland for The Guardian, shown in Hector’s worldly knowledge of the literature that he regards with compassion. His irreverence is equivalent to his passionate and almost religious faith in the power of literature as something that “is precious whether or not it serves the slightest humane uses”. However, the complexity of Hector’s nature is revealed in the juxtaposition of his passion for literature and his grotesque form. The construction of his character is depicted in his physical appearance as “a school master of fifty or so”, old enough to be labelled as ‘perverted’ for groping the boys. Additionally, the way in which he conducts his “general studies” lessons in such an informal and familiar fashion presents bawdiness, which serves as an aspect of comedy for the audience. The mutual exploration of boundaries of authority and physicality in the relations between himself and his students demonstrates his familiarity with the boys through the comedic use of bawdiness in his lessons; he even cultivates the role of the eccentric professor by hitting the boys as a demonstration of his fondness. Apparently, “he hits you if he likes you”. Furthermore, the way in which Hector “gropes” the boys in a sexual manner would cause his character to be alienated in a modern society as it is undeniably “not normal” and repulsive behaviour, as the Headmaster later warns him, reinforcing the idea of Hector’s grotesque form.
The headmaster’s dismissal of Hector, after his wife witnesses him groping another student in public, is a test to the audience’s view on homosexuality. The headmaster himself sexually harasses his secretary Fiona; however, his actions are not challenged, unlike those of Hector, who is forced to have an early retirement due to his sexual preferences. Arguably, Bennett is subtly insinuating to the audience the prejudice and social stigma that was attached to the gay community during the 1870s. However, Alan Bennett does not directly condemn nor redeem Hector in the play, allowing the audience members to make their own judgement whether or not to criticize Hector’s character and his actions. Nicholas Hynter, director of the History Boys film, attended a school not unlike the one in Bennett’s play but confesses “even in the 70s we would have found casual homophobia disgusting”, confirming that the portrayal of homosexual relations between the pupils and teachers to be an abnormal aspect of school life. The History Boys is an-almost fantasy creation of a world where the boundaries between teachers and students do not coexist and the views and values of a normal society are not upheld. The casual representation of homosexuality in the play to be, to a certain extent, accepted into society could be interpreted as Bennett’s way of addressing and subverting the controversy and negativity that was associated with public homosexuality in the 1970s.
The boys’ responses to Hector’s sexual harassment is notable and tells the audience that the boys have come to accept Hector’s behaviour as one of his many literate eccentricities and his defining quality that they endure as if it were a ritual and an inevitable occurrence in their everyday school life. The way in which not one of the ‘history boys’ condemns or questions Hector’s sexual behaviour presents a mutual bond of trust and loyalty they share. This is first shown to the audience in the French scene, when the boys help Hector cover up what was a scene at a brothel, due to the Headmaster’s sudden entrance into the room where Dakin is “sans ses trouseurs”. The content of the scene is very sexual and thus highly inappropriate for boys of their age, further demonstrating Hector’s unsuitable teaching and misunderstanding of the legal and moral boundaries that should exist between himself and the boys in a school setting. Furthermore, Bennett’s principal purpose of the French scene is to serve as an aspect of comedy to the audience through the demonstration of role-play and bawdiness within the characters. Hector’s pedagogical friendship and the camaraderie between him and the boys against their common enemy of the headmaster are also further enhanced by this particular scene in the play. The boy’s judgement about Hector’s sexual desires gives them power over him that they refuse to use, despite how they know outside of school he would be perceived as ‘perverted’. In their acceptance of Hector in that role, the boys seem preternaturally wise, and perhaps Bennett’s intellectually sophisticated construction of the History Boys with their sharp wit and ability and grace to negotiate in class, means they are easily identifiable to the teachers. Thus, the audience does not feel so quick to condemn the breach of boundaries between the teachers and students.
The character of Irwin is introduced to the Sheffield grammar school by the Headmaster to “polish” the Oxbridge history candidates and give them an “edge” to help them gain entry into Oxford or Cambridge, simultaneously positioning the school higher on the League tables (much to the results-driven headmaster’s satisfaction. It is apparent that almost immediately Irwin takes a fondness for the extrovert student Dakin, a ringleader among his friends and a “handsome man” who uses the comedic device of mockery to make Irwin purposely feel uncomfortable by continuously referring to him as “sir”. Like Hector he is a homosexual and is also perilously attracted to Dakin. However, Irwin rejects any connection to Hector’s sexual desires after Dakin questions, “is it that you don’t want to be like Hector?” Irwin can be perceived as the young pragmatist, whose modernised teaching methods and young age are in stark contrast to Hector’s old idealistic and romantic views; his response and relationship with Dakin, in particular, differ.
While Hector’s approach to the boys is much more physical, Irwin seeks a relationship with Dakin and feels uncomfortable with his sexual ambiguity and innuendos in the ending scenes of the second act. Dakin’s character points out Irwin “still looks quite young” and therefore that the characters are not that different in age. This arrangement further suggests to the audience that the sexual tension between Irwin as a teacher and Dakin a student is acceptable through Bennett’s presentation of homosexuality as a normal aspect of school life. Evidently Irwin’s modern style reflects his modern views and the changing morality of society and thus he understands why a boundary must exist between a teacher and a pupil and why he cannot pursue such a relationship with Dakin. Despite Irwin’s evasive technique, with Dakin serving as comedic method in the play, he eventually succumbs to his sexual invitations by agreeing to “have a drink”, notably outside of the school environment where the illegality and morality of the relationship is less obvious. However, the sincerity of the homosexual relationship between Irwin and Dakin is questionable, as he vainly admits that he “couldn’t face the wheelchair” as a reason why he did not pursue his relationship with Irwin, which tells the audience the relationship between the two characters was merely physical and provides the audience with an insight into their shallow personalities.
Arguably, moral resolution was concluded at the end of the play in the form of the motorcycle accident which crippled Irwin and killed Hector, perhaps suggesting the sexual abuse the teachers inflicted on the boys was the ultimate reason for the calamitous accident and had to happen to produce a ‘normal’ school setting for future generations. Within the portrayal of homosexual relations in The History Boys, although inaccurate and not a typicality of 1980s Britain, Bennett does not directly condemn the homosexual relations between the teachers and pupils. Through the subversion of the narrative, Bennett tells the audience how he would want homosexuality to be presented as a normal feature in society, one that is neither condemned nor questioned.
The Headmaster: a Comic Role for an Unlikeable Character
The headmaster is used by Bennett as a source of comedy in the play. He is used to provide different types of comedic elements; through his hypocritical nature where he strives for his school to do academically well, yet he himself is not academically sound. Despite the fact he has a wife, his actions towards Fiona, his secretary, display his misogynistic idea of women, but also introduce humour through the form of Black comedy. The headmaster’s ridiculous behaviour can be seen as pantomime-like material, however, Bennett drip-feeds us this and so alters the perspective we view it at. The headmaster, also known as Felix, is generally portrayed as a strict headmaster who lives solely by the rule book, is aggressive and impatient but also fails to maintain any form of respect from teachers and students alike. Furthermore his strict, dull character, “Get me scholarships, Irwin…” is harshly juxtaposed by the other characters’ open and enjoyable approach to learning “Bristol welcomes you with open arms.” This allows a striking caricature of a headmaster to be created; lavishly filling the play with even more comedy.
The ethos of the headmaster is similar to what was being introduced in the 1980s, where teachers were encouraged to teach students to pass the exam rather than teaching for life as a whole; critic John J. Stinson argues “Bennett had devised his own ‘flash’ method for succeeding on exams, especially in history, and that it worked.” We can see from this, that although teaching solely for the exams is not the best for the long run, it actually works. In the play the headmaster has hired Irwin to teach the boys solely for the exams in order to gain outstanding results allowing for his status to be boasted as the league tables will show positive results. As we know the headmaster is only interested in results and how he is portrayed so he doesn’t care about whether the boys will be successful in later life but rather that they just gain the results for the exams now. Bennett himself would have probably favoured Hector’s route of teaching for later life and making the pupils more rounded, because of this he allows the headmaster to introduce Irwin into the play in order for him to keep his unlikeable relationship with the audience.
We can see an example of the headmaster’s nature when we meet him in the staff room speaking to Mrs Lintott where he asks her “When did we last have anyone in History at Oxford and Cambridge?” Here we can see that the headmaster only really cares about how the school is portrayed and viewed by others as, just like today, Oxford and Cambridge were top universities in the 1980s when the play was set and so you had to be academically brilliant to go there. We can also see some irony in this part of the play as the headmaster wishes his pupils and school to be academically sound when he himself is not academically sound; we find this out when he meets Irwin. “I was a geographer. I went to Hull.” Here the headmaster tries to cover up the fact he didn’t go to one of the ‘top’ universities by making the excuse to Irwin, who went to Oxford, that he studied geography. He possibly feels undermined by Irwin’s credentials.
We can also see the headmaster as quite a manipulative character and liken some aspects of his character to that of a spin doctor. Felix regularly changes words he uses in the play as he considers what he initially said did not have its desired effect. The headmaster realises that the word ‘more’ makes the task at hand seem to much for Mrs Lintott to carry out, and so he changes it to ‘grooming’ and ‘presentation’ therefore bringing it across in a more digestible tone. Again we can see this happen later on in the play when he retracts his comment of ‘silliness’ in front of the boys because he doesn’t want to use such a simple word in their presence as he wishes to appear educated but more importantly because he wishes not to make an attack or criticise their learning for fear he may harm it.
Bennett also uses role reversal to create comedy as the headmaster’s authority and role is turned on its head. For instance when Felix interrupts Hector’s French lesson he formally addresses Hector. “Mr Hector, I hope I’m not…” Here he uses a formal title towards Hector thus laying authority onto him and portrays an element of politeness through saying “I hope I’m not” with the verb ‘hope’ leading to us feeling that way. This is however juxtaposed quite surprisingly by Hector as he holds up “an admonitory finger.” This is quite a harsh contrast between the politely formal phrases from Felix being interrupted with a rather non-formal gesture. “Admonitory” shows that Hector feels he is the only figure in the room with authority, we can see another example too “L’anglais, c’est interdit.” The imperative is a command towards Felix thus generating humour as even Hector seems to mock the headmaster through directly reversing his role and highlighting his failure to maintain respect even from his fellow employees.
Bennett continues to present the headmaster as a figure to be ridiculed as Felix feels he has managed to conspire with Mrs Lintott and successfully persuade her to be on his side, when in actual fact she hasn’t taken notice of one word and is just putting up with him as he has the authority and she doesn’t. This is made evident through how she describes the headmaster “A cunt…” and “A condescending cunt.” Furthermore the response give towards the headmaster when he leaves the staffroom is important too. “Yes, headmaster.” This response can be seen as mimicking young school children as they reply drearily all together to their teacher, this bring it across to the audience that it is a routine that Mrs Lintott follows rather than something she is saying that actually acknowledges what the headmaster has said. Comedy can again be found here in the form of dramatic irony as the audience knows that Mrs Lintott is just putting up with the Felix, whereas the headmaster feels he has conspired with her.
There is impatience shown too by the headmaster which can be another reason as to why we dislike his character. Impatience can be seen as a childish quality and so portray the headmaster as an uneducated and childish character himself as he is too impatient and acts in a way as if he would like the boys just to take their exams now in order for him to gain results. We can see insecurity too; when he is challenged by Hector’s comment he attempts to answer rather than take control of the situation. He answers in French which consequently highlights his lack of education as he stumbles with no fluency, even adding a few words in English. “Pourquoi cet garcon…Dakin, isn’t it?… est sans ses…trousers.” This inflicts satirical comedy upon the audience as we see his incapability to speak French, which would probably involve a rather weird French accent, but also his failure to prove himself to the other characters thus also failing to live up to his expectation as a headmaster.
However, we can see that the headmaster isn’t entirely unlikable as when he talks to Mrs Lintott about Hector leaving he tries to empathise with her as she worked closely with Hector. “…to be hair I think more appreciative than investigatory.” Placing “I think” before his sentences shows that he is aware that he is dealing with a delicate situation and talking to someone who cares about him. However it can be argued that the headmaster’s purpose is to be disliked as he then goes onto use phrases such as “I assumed you knew” and “I don’t want to spell it out.” These both are hurtful towards Mrs Lintott as they attack her and her knowledge and position as a teacher. Using the word ‘assumed’ shows carelessness as he doesn’t bother to find out if Mrs Lintott did actually know about the event. Furthermore the fact he showed empathy with Mrs Lintott early proves he knew her feelings and now makes his latter actions appear even harsher to the audience.
In conclusion, we can see quite clearly that the character of the headmaster is unlikeable; this distaste we have towards Felix’s character can be an argument for why his character is a good pathway for Bennett to cause laughter through as we can find it easier to laugh at the misfortunes, lack of ability and mockery from other characters as we don’t connect or feel as emotionally attached to him compared to some of the other characters in the play; thus allowing him to make light out of rather serious matters in the play as the audience can dismiss him as a character used for comedy value.
How Bennett and Spark Present the Lasting Influence of Teachers and Their Ideals
“Give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man.”
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and The History Boys by Alan Bennett, the authors are seen to be “playing with time” by using flash-forwards and flash-backs to show the lasting influence of their characters. By showing them during and after being influenced these texts foreground the theme of the positive and negative effects of influence and how this can shape young minds. For instance, Spark’s use of juxtaposition between scenes of early influence with later effects show that “there [always] was a certain Miss Jean Brodie”. Muriel Spark and Alan Bennett show the effects of long term influence of those who see teaching as a performance and how those who they influence are their audience.
Ideally Hector would never have chosen to influence anyone especially not on his most favoured subject: “words, said in that reverential way that’s almost welsh”. Yet, he does influence every boy that he teaches. Not that he would ever mean to but he can “pass…on” his knowledge and passion without giving a second thought. This is probably because of his passion about his loved subjects. “The classroom is a stage” for Hector (Miss Brodie too), and the students are an audience who are idolising a great actor. After all, “Hector” is but a character played by the true man: “Douglas” who shares no qualities with the character he plays at all. It may well be that Hector hopes not to inspire because he knows that he should not inspire because while Hector can inspire, he knows that Douglas could never influence because he has “pissed [his] life away”. Spark’s character is much like Bennett’s in that they she is an actor on “a stage”; “She is lost in her own romantic fantasies”, so much so, that she struggles to see the difference between reality and fantasy and if she cannot see the difference then neither can the girls. Maybe that is why she chooses to inspire because she cannot see what is stopping her. Brodie cannot see that she is not a star on the stage, to her, she is the closest thing to “Anna Pavlova” that the girls are going to get. And if she is Pavlova then her girls must follow in her footsteps. If they don’t then they are not “dedicated women”. However, unlike Hector, Spark shows a character that tries too hard to inspire greatness and her legacy is just a fantasy in the girls’ minds. While at school she was inspiring but as the girls left, so did the fantasy of Miss Brodie because it was a fantasy that needed perpetuating by her students; unlike Hector’s legacy which lived after hum because he himself did not perpetuate the fantasy of Hector- it was the boys that were inspired by him that perpetuated the fantasy of Hector.
Spark and Bennett both explore how their teachers inflict their personalities and how their personalities leave a lasting influence on their pupils. Brodie had a profound influence on her “set” and each girl was influenced distinctively and yet they “remained unmistakeably Brodie”. The two girls where this is most prevalent are Rose Stanley, who, like Miss Brodie “was famous for sex”, and “Sandy Stranger, the clever, imaginative one”, who was probably the most like Miss Brodie, although, nobody sees it, Sandy is the most observant; this ability to observe almost turns her into Miss Brodie. She is the girl with the qualities of Miss Brodie. Similarly, in The History Boys Posner is most influenced by Hector and ends up becoming just like him. Neither of the students had a choice in their personalities in later life as they had somebody else’s inflicted on them at an “impressionable age”. Posner is unaware that Hector is influencing him, however, Sandy is fully aware of Miss Brodie’s influence and tries to avoid it; yet, the more that Sandy tries to avoid becoming like Brodie, the more similarities occur because she is “impressionable and powerless”. The girls who allowed her influenced only became a part of Miss Brodie whereas the one girl who least wanted to be influenced, Sandy, became almost completely like Miss Brodie. Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie probably best shows how much like Brodie she is; she is “flattening” Brodie “beneath the chariot wheels”. Brodie’s statement of the girls being “mine for life” really shows with Sandy because even as an adult she is avoiding becoming like her former teacher by becoming a nun. However, despite Brodie not liking her career choice, Sandy is still “unmistakeably Brodie” because she became a “dedicated woman” which was always Brodie’s biggest desire for the girls. The “unmistakeably Brodie” statement used by Spark carries a distinct message, that these girls have a false sense of self. They all believe that they have their own personalities which Spark shows by the girls placing their hats in different ways. Their self-identity is an illusion.
Much like Spark, Bennett shows his protagonist students being distinctively influenced. Posner was influenced by his long-time teacher, Hector and Dakin was influenced by Irwin. Not only were the boys influenced by their teachers but they, like Sandy, became just like their teachers. While at school, Posner excelled, leaving top of the class with “a scholarship”; Dakin did also excel, just not quite as well as Posner, coming away with “an exhibition” (effectively second place to Posner). Although Headmaster believes that “he doesn’t produce results”, Hector is the one who influenced Posner to success and made him a more well-rounded individual. He achieved this despite everything that Hector taught being “useless to the school as a school”. If Posner was not as “vastly informed on a lot of subjects” then he would not have had as much academic success. Although as Headmaster says, the results are “unquantifiable” which is Bennett showing that if put against each other multiple times, Hector may not always defeat Irwin because Hector’s method is “unquantifiable” or, more simply, unreliable. While Dakin was at school he took success from Irwin’s “side door” method which worked for him because the method is just like him, it’s flashy and yet it works. It quickly gets him to the top and, like Irwin, that’s all Dakin needs. When Dakin says “I didn’t know I could think like that” he’s becoming more like Irwin, clearly, however, for Dakin, becoming like Irwin isn’t that much of a change. Therefore, Dakin is an outlier in the two stories, Posner was moulded to become like Hector, Sandy was moulded to become like Miss Jean Brodie but Dakin, while becoming like Irwin, ultimately became an, arguably, better version of himself. As James Middleton says “Posner, [is] perhaps the most fragile of the boys” and consequently he is easily moulded by someone as charismatic as Hector: his fragility is his downfall. He ends up living as a recluse having “periodic breakdowns” and “keeps a scrapbook of … his one-time class”. Hector’s influence makes him academically successful but he could never make him socially successful because he taught “insulation” from the real world. Here, influence is a malicious force as it enhances the vulnerability in Posner’s character rather than challenging it.
Hector may stifle Posner but Brodie’s influence is fatal for Joyce Emily. She takes a vulnerable child who seeks belonging and sends her to a war zone where she dies. Miss Brodie’s self-glorifying representation of being a war-hero is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of her to sympathise with. For many of the students “it was not always comfortable” to be influenced. Unlike any of Spark’s or Bennett’s other students Dakin chose to be influenced, knowing that Irwin’s “side door” method would get him to the top. Although Bennett paints Irwin to be the “villain of The History Boys”, David Greenberg is right in saying that Irwin is “the better teacher” because he can teach success and he can inspire. He creates well-rounded people and minds, whereas Hector can only create well-rounded minds. Although Irwin’s influence on the surface appears second rate given that Posner got a “scholarship” and Dakin only an “exhibition” Dakin succeeds in life. Although as an audience people want to side with Hector (much like they do with Miss Brodie) it must be said that there was one teacher where no student left him hurt or damaged. Hector ruined Posner’s life leaving him “shrivelled and betrayed” and although Sandy got her own back on Miss Brodie she still was left with Brodie’s mark. So, despite even Bennett’s best efforts to make Irwin seem like the worst teacher, he, much to the dismay of many audiences, turns out on top. However, there is evidence within The History Boys to support that Hector may actually be the better teacher. Bennett himself claims that Hector is the “better teacher” providing the boys with an education that gave Posner a “scholarship” and them all with a well-rounded knowledge in the class given “the euphemistic title… of general studies”. The boys’ extra-curricular knowledge is best shown when they are in Irwin’s class, or in their entrance examinations, where Hector’s true benefit on them can be seen in a wider context. He allows them to conquer the class prejudices of the 80s and it is thanks to him that these working-class boys break into “Oxbridge” Paradoxically he claims to insulate the boys from the outside world when he decides to “lock the door”, however, in reality, his influence takes its true effect when the door has been unlocked and the boys have been let away from Hector’s “pact”. Bennett and Spark both tackle whether or not a teacher should live vicariously through their students. In The History Boys Hector “used to think [he] could warm himself on the vitality of the boys”, meaning that he believed that his pupils’ “vitality” would bring him out of feeling like something made him “piss [his] life away”. However, he later discovers “that doesn’t work” and warns Irwin against living vicariously.
It’s possible that Miss Brodie lives vicariously through her girls because nobody warned her that it “doesn’t work”. However, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys, “vitality” means different things. In The History Boys, “vitality” is what Hector takes from the boys during “Pillion Duty” and because it “doesn’t work” he has to keep doing it to keep him going. “Vitality” for Hector is a drug. Whereas “vitality” in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more of a shared experience, it works between the “set” and Miss Brodie. The girls receive excellence from being one of Brodie’s girls and therefore Brodie is given excellence. However, when the girls are gone there is no excellence but only for Brodie; the girls kept their “vitality” but without the girls, Brodie could never have “vitality” again. Instead she ends up “shrivelled and betrayed” Brodie “was determined to enter and share the new life…” of the girls and “warm [herself] on the vitality of the [girls]” when she gets the girls to teach her Greek. She gets them to teach her Greek in order to remain close to the girls. The problem with living vicariously through students is that it leads to the two teachers becoming “old people who cling to outworn bodies”. This leads the authors to show that despite that they probably shouldn’t live vicariously, both Hector and Miss Brodie do live through their students. In Hector this is shown through “Pillion Duty” and that he sees “the transference of knowledge” as “an erotic act”. The fact that he’s “an unrepentant molester” shows that despite knowing that he knows that it “doesn’t work” he continues to “grope” the boys and hope that he can “warm” himself via “the laying on of hands”. Mrs Lintott sums up Hector using “Pillion Duty” best, “that is the most colossal balls”; she knows as well as Hector that a teacher cannot live through their students in order to improve their life. While Brodie is with the “set” she is almost able to live vicariously through her girls, however, after she’s fired she becomes “shrivelled and betrayed” clearly no longer “in [her] prime”. When teaching “she seizes upon docile little girls”  and she takes on their “vitality” if her girls can be “the crème de la crème” then maybe she can be too. But as soon as the connection is lost with the girls, she can no longer look upon people and “flatten their scorn beneath her chariot wheels”. Both teachers are shown to be “charlatans who exploit” those who they should be protecting. This vicarious living would make the children feel at one with their teachers without even knowing that they are being exploited.
Both Spark and Bennett show that influence is often in the minds of those being influenced- whether that be a pupil or a teacher. They also show the dangers of influenced. If the person influencing is damaged, then they can only go on to inspire more damaged individuals such as Posner. Influence, in the end, is dangerous, whether it lives or it dies and it’s something that nobody can choose.
 Playing with Time/ James Middleton/ December 2009  Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006 Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006 Romantic Idealism as a Response to the Rise of Fascism in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ David Kelly/ 2006  Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962  Autocracy and Education in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/ Melodie Monahan/ 2006  Playing with Time/ James Middleton/ December 2009  Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006  Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006  Interview with Alan Bennett/ Theatre Talk/ 2006  Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962  Class Warfare: Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher/ David Greenberg/ November 2006  Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962  Splendid by Destructive Egotism/ Martin Price/ January 21, 1962