The History Boys
Revisionism and Re-Evaluation of the Patriarchal Nature of Literature and History in The History Boys and The World’s Wife
Both Duffy and Bennett present deliberately provocative attitudes towards the matriarchy and patriarchy through their respective uses of storytelling. In The World’s Wife Duffy uses a variety of poetic forms to displace and reinsert female mythological and literary figures into roles of dramatic cultural centrality, or contrastingly into singular roles in history and society in order to accentuate their oppression, whilst subverting it. Duffy therefore utilises the revisionist method of re-evaluating to critique the superficiality that inhibits modern society, allowing reinvention to lead further from an unacceptable truth towards a more appealing alternative. In a similar manner, Bennett’s The History Boys, exploits revisionist methods to encourage his audiences to re-evaluate the nature of history itself, and to question the function and value of literature in modern society. However, where Bennett uses revisionism as a technique of selling ‘false’ truths through the presentation of Irwin’s ‘spin’ approach to knowledge and teaching, Duffy’s uses revisionism to re-evaluate what it is to be female, as well as critiquing the superficiality and materialism of modern lifestyles.
Both Duffy and Bennett encourage their reader, or audience, to re-evaluate the patriarchal nature of literature and history, and the displacement of women. However, both authors re-evaluate women’s role in society for different purposes, and through using contesting techniques and methods of re-evaluation. Bennett seems to almost parody the existing patriarchal bias of history and literature through the gender imbalance amongst the characters in The History Boys which features only one speaking female character, reflective of the gender inequalities of both the 1950s and 1980s society he draws upon. Lacking a feminist agenda however, Bennett actively promotes an overtly male society, as well as emphasising the typical role of female subservience through his recreation of 1980s male dominated society. Contrastingly, Duffy, in a stridently feminist manner, deliberately highlights the historical oppression of the matriarchy through her use of cultural references and intertextuality. This enables her to persuade her readers to revaluate female figures, previously displaced through patriarchal versions of history or literature. This can be seen at the start of The World’s Wife, where Duffy subverts the fairy tale figure of Little Red Riding Hood within her opening poem, Little Red Cap. This poem is a bitter revisionist parody of the traditional fairy tale in which Duffy suggests that female liberation from male oppression lies in the need to reverse expected gender roles. Little Red Cap actively takes charge of her own ‘loss of innocence’ in eagerly following the wolf into the woods, then through her ultimate defiance of the patriarchy through killing the wolf: “I took an axe to the wolf”. Duffy shows the death and consuming of the patriarchy by the stronger force of the matriarchy, as the wolf symbolises masculinity as a whole. The active verb “took” emphasises the activity and strength of femininity over masculinity, showing that The World’s Wife “marks a critical departure from the earlier poetry in that men and masculinity are attacked constantly by more abrasive female narrators” Rowland, A. (2019). [online] Academic.oup.com. Available at:https://academic.oup.com/english/article-pdf/50/198/199/1818138/50-198-199.pdf [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019]. Therefore Duffy uproots the traditional expectations of the strength of the patriarchy within society, unsettling the reader through typical subversive techniques, irreverently paired with a postmodernist twist and encouraging the reader to re-evaluate the supposed ‘inability’ of femininity, positioning the matriarchy above the patriarchy.
Unlike Duffy however, Bennett seemingly adheres to patriarchal domination without a feminist agenda, creating a gender imbalance to reflect the latent misogyny of 1980s society. He uses Mrs Lintott as a dramatic device, conforming to the characteristics of the ‘submissive’ contemporary stereotype of women who accepts their allocated role in society (“… my role a patient and not unamused sufferance of the predilections and preoccupations of men.’) Duffy too draws upon gender stereotypes, but shows Little Red Cap as able to manipulate these in her favour, by playing on her supposed innocence to seduce the wolf into seducing her. Duffy uses the patronising ‘label’ of a “little girl”, as well as the listing of patronising female identities: “sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif…” in order to expose the stereotypical perspectives of females as both sexualised and innocent objects. Duffy directly addresses normalised views of female diminishment in history, subverting the degrading connotations of these identities, enabling them to instead empower femininity. Therefore, in her initial poem Duffy instantaneously constructs the newly-established notion of a matriarchal world, that progresses throughout The World’s Wife. Bennett similarly presents a partially supressed female figure through his characterisation of Mrs Lintott, giving her “the role as astute and perceptive commentator.” This commentary extends to Mrs Lintott herself acknowledging that she has little influence over the events in a patriarchal society other than as an observer and confidante: “I’m what men call a safe pair of hands”. Bennett constructs the image of a male dominated history through his use of the bitter metaphor and an active passive divide: “They kick their stone along the street and I watch”, whereby Mrs Lintott inhibits a passive, typically female role. The non-action verb “watch” further hyperbolises Mrs Lintott’s inactive and compliant role, offering a female critique of history. Bennett juxtaposes this subservient female figure with the rather egocentric nature of the masculine characters, through his use of the active verb and third person pronoun “they kicked”, allowing Mrs Lintott to be denoted an invaluable role. As a part of his postmodernist storytelling, Bennett draws attention to Mrs Lintott’s ‘function’ as a ‘self-reflexive’ character within The History Boys by allowing her to highlight her own very limited role within the play (“I have not hitherto been allotted an inner voice…”). In a similar way, Duffy re-evaluates the stereotypical identities of women and girls in society, but instead reinstating a newly heightened sense of femininity, and of Little Red Cap, by directly addressing suppressive stereotypes.
Both authors use social commentary and satire in order to encourage the reader to re-evaluate social values and preoccupations within society, such as the differing ways in which both Duffy and Bennett attack materialism. Duffy utilises social commentary, paired with a savage satire, as a device to encourage a reflection and re-evaluation of materialism within late 20th Century society. Whereas Bennett creates a divide between the importance of life education, knowledge and wisdom to present the commodification of the education system. Bennett uses revisionism as a technique of selling ‘false’ truths though the presentation of Irwin’s ‘spin’ approach to knowledge. Like Duffy, Bennett employs satire to encourage his audience to re-evaluate a key social construction in the form of the education system. Through his characterisation of Irwin as an Alastair Campbell-esque spin doctor, Bennett focuses on attacking supposedly innovative educational methodologies, in order to mock the New Labour Blairite years. This was a government that was framed for exploiting the political power of ‘spin’, and their obsession upon ‘education, education, education’. This links with Irwin’s repetitive teaching of journalistic methods of “selling” their examination essays to receive higher results and to win “the pools”, by getting into Oxbridge.
Duffy deliberately attacks late C20th middle class lifestyle aspirations within both Mrs Faust and Salome. Through creating a revisionist version of the Faustus myth (in which Faust sells his soul to the devil via Mephistopheles receiving unlimited power and wealth for 25 years in return) Duffy satirises the ‘soullessness’ of modern society due to its materialistic value system, an idea also dealt with in Mrs Midas. Multiple status symbols are referenced throughout Mrs Faust through a series of elliptical sentences: “Fast cars. A boat with sails. / A second home in Wales”, generating the sense of endless wealth that composes an inextricable lifestyle, supposedly creating contentment. The majority of the poem is in fact a list of acquisitions, continuing the attack upon the cumulative mind set and lack of ‘soul’ present within this relationship. Bennett also attacks social values, as evidenced by the view that “Irwin is very much a product of the 80s ”, which can be seen in his reducing all aspects of the boys’ knowledge down to how they can be exploited for personal gain in an examination. Irwin’s commodification of knowledge, links directly to the late C20th focus on materialism, whereby even knowledge itself is objectified in terms of its value. Furthermore Duffy also emphasises the lack of consequence of a selfish and materialistic lifestyle in ‘Salome’, where she re-visits the mythological and biblical account of the original story, presenting an ultimately unapologetic soulless female figure. The absence of compassion of the pre-corrupt cultural female figure chimes with the ‘soullessness’ of the dissatisfied character, Mrs Faust. Duffy’s use of repeated rhetorical questioning: “a head on the pillow beside me-whose? – /what did it matter?”, paired with the objectification and obsession with physicality of masculinity: “a beautiful crimson mouth that obviously knew how to flatter…” creates a sense of the protagonist leading a parody of the 1990s ladette lifestyle. Salome, is presented as showing no remorse or regret for her violent actions through her admission at the start of the poem: “I’d done it before/and doubtless I’ll do it again…”. This absence of compassion or regret is suggested through her immediate and casual confession of her intent, emphasised by Duffy’s use of the contracted form of the modal auxiliary “I will”. Salome’s lack of realisation and soullessness links to the greed of Mrs Faust: “I bought a kidney/with my credit card”, showing Duffy’s use of social satire to attack late 20th Century values in society. Therefore, Bennett’s presentation of the distortion of knowledge for personal gain by Irwin links closely with Duffy’s satire of the soullessness of the modern society, through the selfish and gluttonous attitudes of Salome and Mrs Faust.
Where Duffy uses revisionism to re-evaluate alternative representations of femininity in history throughout The World’s Wife, Bennett encourages the reader to re-evaluate the nature of history through Irwin’s revisionist versions of it, so introducing the idea of historiography, whereby historical accounts are dependent upon personal experiences or cultural context. Duffy deliberately distances her characters from sentimentalised idealism regarding the role of the female protagonist, creating ‘real’ voices of suppressed female voices through her use of the dramatic monologue form. However Bennett presents subjunctive historiography through the characterisation of Dakin, leaving the reader to question how minor changes in historical events may significantly impact the route of history. Dakin seems to follow Hector’s focus on the constant questioning of the alternate outcomes of history, musing on both alternate and subjunctive history (“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined”). Dakin finds enjoyment in “summarising the sometimes accidental nature of history” through merging both Irwin and Hector’s arguably conflicting perspectives to history. Duffy also uses subjunctive history to convey a provocatively sympathetic portrayal of the English serial killer, Myra Hindley, within the poem The Devil’s Wife. Here, Duffy utilises revisionism and subjunctive history to provide possibilities of what may have occurred in the ambiguous events of The Moors Murders (1963-1965). Duffy is subversive through her depiction of Myra Hindley as a victim, rather than a violent criminal, through her objectification and public judgement of her appearance and voice (a subject of great focus amongst media and the public eye of the 1960s): “Nobody liked my hair. Nobody liked how I spoke”. Duffy’s use of repetition of “Nobody”, combined with emphatic nature of the sentences, instil sense of victimisation. The objectification of Myra Hindley encourages the reader to question and revise what it is to be a woman in an intensely judgemental modern society. Duffy subtly uses revisionism to criticise society and the media for their frivolous judgement of Myra Hindley, re-writing history by illustrating Hindley as a victim.
Contrastingly Dakin presents a striking example of subjunctive historiography within The History Boys. This is reflected through his re-interpretation of the day of Winston Churchill’s election to be Britain’s Prime Minister, as a result of Halifax not being present (the more likely candidate to be elected: “Halifax more generally acceptable”- Dakin) as he was at the dentist. This is a prime instance where events in history would have unfolded in to creating alternative results, showing how Bennett is emphasising the concept of the incidental nature of history. Dakin’s obsession with subjunctive history and the possibilities of different events is illustrated through his enjoyment in considering the minor details of the past: “If Halifax had had better teeth we might have lost the war”. Bennett’s use of the conditional “if” highlights the interchangeability and probability associated with subjunctive history. Bennett’s comedic writing highlights deeper concepts regarding alternate history and the consequences, chance and scenarios that determine history.
Similarly, Duffy uses subjunctive history by presenting various interpretations of Hindley. She is partially portrayed as not fulfilling the ‘ideal’ appearance constituted by the public eye. Hindley is singled out as a misfit of society and normality, supported by title of the third poem that makes up The Devil’s Wife: Medusa that evokes a sense of otherness and unnatural femininity. Since Ancient Greece, Medusa has existed as a snake-haired, sexualised symbol of women’s fury. This Greek Gorgon is an image of violent, seductive desire, partially viewed as a victim due to her execution by her male slayer, Perseus. Her power of turning everything she glanced at in to stone, also presented Medusa as a destructive and dangerous female. Duffy’s use of intertextuality may suggest the victimisation of Hindley within The Devil’s Wife. Hindley claimed she was not responsible for her actions due to the physical and sexual abuse that she endured from Ian Brady (her accomplice), who also supposedly tortured and threatened to kill her. Therefore, during this time of great public controversy, some people believed the manipulation that Hindley experienced by Brady was true, recognising her victimisation that is reflected within the poem Medusa: “I howled in my cell”. Duffy uses an animalistic image of Hindley to partially create a sense of her dangerous and abnormal actions, as well as inflicting a feeling of her madness and demented rage due to her captivity. Duffy uses intertextuality as a method of re-evaluating the possibility of female monstrosity and victimisation, as well as suggesting females are equally capable of committing violent crimes as men, reflected within Medusa: “I didn’t care”. Duffy utilises a dismissive tone through her use of an emphatic sentence, denoting the emotionless and detached characterisation of Hindley. Arguably Duffy exploits subjunctive history to rewrite traditional gender stereotypes, in contrast to Bennett’s broader use of it to explore the nature of history itself.
To conclude, Bennett and Duffy utilise revisionism in order to re-evaluate the patriarchal nature of literature and history, whereby Bennett paradises the male-dominated society and Duffy reverses gender roles to liberate the matriarchy. Both authors use social commentary and satire to attack societal occupations, regarding the re-evaluation of the materialistic nature of the 20th Century (by Duffy), and Bennett’s presentation of the commodities of the 1980s British education system. Lastly, Bennett and Duffy make use of subjunctive history to encourage the reader to re-evaluate certain possibilities in history, as well as Duffy’s revisionism of women’s capabilities, suggesting their empowerment lies in the exploiting both their creative and destructive abilities.
Different Attitudes to the Purposes of Education in The History Boys and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
There are many different attitudes to the purposes of education presented in The History Boys and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. We see many examples of Hector’s traditional views on education compared to Irwin’s pragmatic views about taking an unusual position in debates in order to impress examiners. The headmaster sees education in utilitarian terms and is more concerned about the reputation of his school than each of the boy’s personal success. Then there is Mrs. Lintott who has a more minor role in the play and expresses that history should be about truth and fact rather than entertainment. On the other hand, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie features Miss Brodie who takes an unorthodox approach to education and teaches her students about life skills, such as skincare but neglects the formal curriculum. Miss Brodie hides this from the head teacher, Miss MacKay who has a similar view to the headmaster in The History Boys, as they both believe that schools should produce results and success.
The History Boys presents two interesting main teachers in the forms of Irwin and Hector. These two characters can be said to be vastly different from each other in terms of their approach to teaching. Irwin’s role in the school is to teach history and prepare the boys from their university entrance exams. His view is that the boys should take unusual stances in historical debates in order to set them apart from the other prestigious Oxbridge candidates. Irwin argues that “These boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.”(Act 1) In Irwin’s view, the boys should argue towards the unconventional side because it will interest the examiners and make them stand out from the other candidates. “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.” Their essays shouldn’t just be about conveying their extensive knowledge on historical facts, it should be about writing this knowledge in a way that entertains or even shocks the examiners. Hector’s role in the school is more general, Hector seems to encourage the boys to enjoy learning and to use the things they learn in life not just in examinations. As Timms says, “Mr. Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam, sir. It’s to make us more rounded human beings.” (pg. 38) Hector inspires his students and moulds them into bookish and highbrowed individuals. Hector’s approach to education is rather traditional, whereas Irwin realises that education is more about competition. As Nightingale puts it, “Education is no longer about broadening and deepening the self (but) manipulating the system.” Hector is a traditional teacher but he fails to understand that his methods won’t help the Oxbridge candidates in their crucial examinations as they feel that they shouldn’t even use the material they learn from him in their essays.
Furthermore, Irwin’s approach to teaching is also vastly different to Mrs Lintott’s approach, the reason that Irwin is even employed at the school is because the headmaster doesn’t think that Mrs Lintott is capable of giving the boys that extra ‘polish’ that they require in order to be offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Although, it could be argued that this is a matter of gender inequality as men in the 80s, like headmaster, were reluctant to accept that women are capable of doing jobs just as well as men. However, there are significant differences in the way that Irwin and Mrs Lintott teach the boys history. For example, Mrs Lintott teaches the boys factual information about history so that examiners can see that the boys have extensive knowledge on history, whereas Irwin argues that, “Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip tease.” Irwin is focused on the boys just getting through examinations and shortly after, forgetting everything they had learnt; whereas Mrs Lintott, like Hector, is pragmatic about education and hopes that the boys will hold onto their knowledge and use it later on in their lives. Similarly, teachers in the senior school in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie appear to take a similar approach to teaching. Teachers, such as Miss Lockhart, want the young girls to be successful in their subject and use their role to teach them important factual knowledge about the subject.
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie doesn’t take the girls education seriously; instead of teaching the national curriculum and all the key knowledge they will need, Miss Brodie chooses to use lessons to talk about her life in her prime. She also indoctrinates the girls through telling them about all the ‘good’ things the fascist movement are doing, and also shares her makeup tips, views on poetry and art etc. As David Lodge explains, Miss Brodie “tries to create the girls in her own image, and to direct their destinies according to her own divine plan.” Miss Brodie is moulding the Brodie into younger versions of herself and controlling their futures. As she says at the start of the novel, “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders… and all my pupils are the crème de la crème.” Miss Brodie doesn’t see the girls as her students, she sees them as different individuals that she can manipulate. However, the teachers in the senior school educate the girls properly and don’t try to manipulate them. As it says in chapter 4, “The teachers here [in the Senior school] seemed to have no thoughts of anyone’s personalities apart from their specialty in life, whether it was mathematics, Latin or science. They treated the new first-formers as if they were not real, but only to dealt with, like symbols of algebra, and Miss Brodie’s pupils found this refreshing at first.” Teachers like Miss Lockhart use their role in the school to educate the students effectively on their specialist subject and instead of seeing them as unique individuals; they see them as a group of students. Miss Lockhart is dedicated to nothing more than teaching science completely and effectively. Another important character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the headmistress, Miss MacKay. Miss MacKay disapproves with Miss Brodie’s approach to teaching and often asks the Brodie set about information on Miss Brodie that could be used to have her resign. Miss Brodie also disagrees with Miss MacKay approach to education as she says, “To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss MacKay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion.” However, many readers around the time it was published in 1961, as well as modern readers, argued that Miss Brodie was in fact intruding on the Brodie set by attempting to control even their love lives.
What is interesting when comparing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The History Boys is that the main teacher in both the novel and the play are differing in many ways but almost identical in their approaches to education and teaching. For example, both Hector and Miss Brodie disapprove of the education system and examinations. Hector says, “I count examinations even for Oxford or Cambridge as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don’t regard education as the enemy of education.” (pg. 48) This is because he believes that results from an education cannot be measured. Miss Brodie also thinks that examinations are not important and that the girls shouldn’t worry about getting a high grade and just scrape through. This is because Miss Brodie would rather use the girls lessons to talk about her own life. Similarly the style of Miss Brodie’s and Hector’s lessons are resembling. Hector’s lessons are unorthodox and energetic, he often has the boys act out scenes or sing songs, as well as memorising literature that should help them in later life. However, this teaching style was not suitable for the education system in the 80s because it was more important to know a lot of facts than to have a deep connection with literature, which Hector fails to understand. The headmaster did not approve of Hector’s traditional teaching style and said, “Shall I tell you what is wrong with Hector as a teacher? It isn’t that he doesn’t produce results. He does. But they are unpredictable and unquantifiable and in the current educational climate that is no use.” (pg. 67) The headmaster is more concerned with results and league tables than whether his students enjoy learning and actually take something from it. However, critic Billington agued that The History Boys “highlights the meaning of education.” This shows that some audiences of the play approved of Hector’s teaching style as it is meaningful and he helped the boys to enjoy learning. In comparison, Miss Brodie also has an unorthodox teaching style as she chooses to teach the girls ‘life skills’ that she regards as important rather than teaching formal matters such as history. For example, in chapter 1 she tells the girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first.” (pg. 7) This can be seen as dangerous indoctrination. As James Wood from The Guardian explains, “Spark turns her novel into a deep questioning of authorial control and limit.” Spark uses the character of Miss Brodie to reveal the negative and damaging effects of a characteristic teacher, as the girls trust Miss Brodie and so will follow her beliefs. This results in a girl being killed after Miss Brodie convinces her to fight in the war for the fascist movement. As both Hector and Miss Brodie use unorthodox teaching styles, they often use physical barriers in order to prevent the headmaster/mistress from finding out. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie uses the physical barrier of books, during lessons, she often instructs her students to prop up their history books so that Miss MacKay would think they were just learning history. Similarly, Hector, in The History Boys, often locks the door during his lessons with the Oxbridge candidates in order to prevent them from being disrupted by the headmaster. Hector tells the boys, “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.” (pg. 6) This quote could be alluding to Hector’s sexual encounters with the boys on his motorcycle, which also reinforces the dangers of having a trustful and charismatic teacher.
In conclusion, Alan Bennett and Muriel Spark present us with many different attitudes to the purposes of education in both The History Boys and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Despite both texts being set 50 years apart from one another, both texts explore the theme of education in similar ways. For example, there is the charismatic teacher of Hector and Miss Brodie who both reject the idea of an orthodox education. There are also the simple but effective teachers in the form of Miss Lockhart and Mrs Lintott, and then the strict and rigid headmaster and headmistress in both the play and the novel. However, Irwin from The History Boys could be said to be a unique teacher, as there isn’t a character like him in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Character Analysis of Hector and Mr. Irwin
In the “History Boys,” Mrs. Lintott is a caring teacher who gives the boys much-needed moral support, but her teaching style is only shown very briefly. The two most important teachers are Hector and Mr. Irwin, who seem to advocate completely opposite ways of viewing and articulating history. Hector has the boys read mountains of literature and poetry, encouraging acting and a fun original way to view history, while teaching them factual knowledge and accepted facts. Mr. Irwin, however, is hired as a tutor to the boys to help them “polish their style.” Instead of teaching the boys history to learn about life in the past, Mr. Irwin teaches history solely to help the boys get into Oxford. He teaches them how to twist history around to get an original point of view, which he seems to value even over the truth. Unless the only purpose was to study for an exam, I would prefer to be taught by Hector rather than Mr. Irwin.
One of the first scenes of the movie is in Hector’s class. Occasionally during a discussion, a few of the boys will burst in to song, or acting, after reading a passage or making a good point. Instead of condemning this kind of raucous behaviour, Hector encourages it, having realized that this is a great way for the boys to learn and interpret history and culture for themselves, instead of being force-fed. Despite Hector’s infamous motorcycle rides, the boys have a great deal of respect for his teaching, and Hector as a person.
On Mr. Irwin’s first day, the boys act much in the same boisterous way, and he is a little taken aback. Although he does not necessarily reprimand the boys for this, he thinks it is a waste of the precious little time they have before the exam. Mr. Irwin gets straight down to business, attempting to rid the boys of the habits Hector instilled in them, and to study his way. He tries to convince the boys that the applications committee at Oxford does not want to read the same thing about WWII over and over again, but instead wants somebody with an original view, for example, that Hitler was not so bad, and that Stalin was just misunderstood. Mr. Irwin seems to value originality over everything else, almost to the point of blocking the truth.
There is a scene when Hector and Mr. Irwin must combine classes, and they are debating whether the Holocaust should be taught in school. It is a perfect scene to juxtapose the two teachers and teaching styles. Hector argues that it is impossible to be objective towards such a horrifying event, so it can not be taught. After many of Mr. Irwin’s classes, however, some of the boys seem to be hardened, and, in the spirit of Mr. Irwin’s teachings, bring up points that seem trivialize the Holocaust (granted they are original). Hector is horrified by their lack of sensitivity.
While Hector would have the boys study and memorize a passage for cultural value, Irwin points out that the boys’ knowledge of literature could be great for nothing else than to strengthen their college essay. While Hector emphasizes culture, learning, and fun, Mr. Irwin turns history merely into a subject to study for an exam. I would much prefer Hector as a teacher than Mr. Irwin.
The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Play Review
Introduction & Aims
The literary discourse I have selected is a play named “The History Boys” It is a play by a British playwrighter, Alan Bennett. It is a play set at a boy’s secondary school located in Northern England in the 1980’s. It focuses on a group of 8 sixth-form boys and their teachers as they prepare to take their entrance exams for admission into Oxford or Cambridge. The focus of this investigation will be on education. I have selected this play for this investigation as its foremost theme is based on the purpose of education, linking to social class, inequalities, hidden sexualities and gender roles of which is followed by many diverse individual opinions when it comes this topic. I believe that this would be very captivating to write about. It expresses different views on the purpose of education underlying themes of knowledge where Bennett presents a cynical view about the state of British education. Bennett adopts a narrative which is heavily inspired by Bennett’s own experiences in school and the process through which he gained entrance to Oxford. Bennett’s 1980s grammar school is an image of Thatcherite Britain. Bennett chose to set The History Boys in the 1980s because it was when “people seemed to think the system had changed”. (Bennett 2004) The Headmaster’s conversation with Mrs. Lintott about their school’s dismal acceptance statistics in previous years reflects the realities of Britain’s educational climate at that time; a disproportionately low number of public school students were matriculating to Oxford and Cambridge. In response to this pattern, Bennett writes, “I’m old fashioned enough to believe that private education should long since have been abolished and that Britain has paid too high a price in social inequality for its public schools”. (Bennett 2004) However, he is not hopeful that such a thing will ever happen. His cynicism is therefore reflected throughout the play. The History Boys takes place in 1980s Britain, as previously mentioned, when Margaret Thatcher was in power. The play does not directly reference the political context of the time, but some of Thatcher’s policies affected Britain’s educational climate. She cut funding significantly for British universities. After her 1988 Education Reform Act, schools had to follow a national curriculum and submit to periodic inspections. Such measures may have contributed to the Headmaster’s insistence on quantifiable results from his teachers, as a result creating a backdrop for the play. The importance of the theme “Education” is very dominant throughout the play as there is a lot of discussion in the play about what knowledge is actually useful. Hector believes that learning poetry “insulates” the students’ minds. The play ultimately does not endorse one viewpoint over another, as this is a complicated and age-old debate, especially when it comes to education. The language used in the play is also significant as it merges well with the play itself, it partly yet significantly shows the intelligence levels and manipulative methods the boys need to get into private school.
The non-literary discourse I have chosen is a two- part documentary named the School swap- class divide it features a head teacher of a comprehensive school with three pupils from it, experiencing education with their private counterparts to find out if private schools really gives you a first-class advantage and whether a state education really means second-rate. I have chosen this documentary as it shows the underlying problems between private and comprehensive schooling and the fact that there seems to be a huge difference between the two, of which is the underlying theme, in the play The History Boys. In the two-part documentary, we realise that it’s not only the environment that’s different to comprehensive schools, but the variance of character and behaviour of the students who attend and the result of attending such schools in addition to where it places you in society for example as upper class or working class, high status or lower status and valued or not valued. This is a good source of data as it links to the literary discourse “The history boys” they both connect to education, relating to both private and comprehensive, as the boys in “The history boys” are working exceptionally hard to get into private school education and in “School swap- class divide” the head teacher Jo ward, finds that there is a significant gap/difference among the two educations, including the level of difficulty and complications it takes to attend the school in the very first place and stating the fact that it shouldn’t be so hard.
In an interview, the writer of The History Boys talks about the background story behind the play “I think I started writing it about 18 months ago and I can see that, of the three teachers in the play, I’ve had experience of two of them. I’d been taught at my own school in Leeds by somebody like Mrs Lintott, in a very straightforward, factual way” (Bennett 2004) he expresses how his personal experiences replicates the themes in the play.
In a review on (Goodreads) a reviewer named Sookie writes about how Alan Bennett’s dialogues have layers. Bennett uses poets, writers and artists as a subtle influencing factors to bring home a larger point. Auden (W.H Auden 1973) is heavily quoted and acts as a metaphor for Hector’s lifestyle. One of his pupils, Timms, quotes Auden and uses it outside the context to explain Hector’s behaviour to Irwin. It’s clever and plays out as a fantastic inside joke among the boys.
On a Marxist perspective, their view about the ruling class was that they have the power to control the working classes not with force but with ideas. Louis Althusser (a Marxist) (1971) argued that the main role of education in a capitalist society was the reproduction of an efficient and obedient work force, this applies to The history boys and School swap- class divide as there is a clear divide between private and comprehensive school education and this is because of our capitalist society. The ruling class; private schoolers will forever be ahead.
In a review on (The guardian), on the documentary School swap- class divide the writer states how the documentary didn’t include themes and information of which it should have “Throughout the hour-long episode, inequality was never seriously acknowledged, though. This was documentary TV so lite as to be almost pointless” (John Grace 2015) this negative criticism shows that they feel the documentary didn’t live up to expectations. In this review they also address Bemrose and Warminster as being opposing rivals “It was Mortimer and his students who were to first engage with the enemy: Bemrose secondary school in Derby” (John Grace 2015) this expresses the writers view on private and comprehensive education, they don’t working together, but against each other.
The deliberate use of Alliteration and Repetition
In The history boys by Alan Bennett the play begins with the teacher, Hector congratulating his students on getting on to A levels, where he suggests, using the language features of repetition and alliteration, that A levels are essential “ All, all have done that noble and necessary thing” by this he is suggesting that without A levels, one is a failure and has no guaranteed successful future of which could be case but by saying this Hector is being very ignorant, Ignoring that there are other ways in becoming successful such as an apprenticeship, therefore he is associating higher level education with middle class careers and working class careers with everything outside of the path of a levels of which most of the time isn’t the case, he unconsciously suggests that A levels are for the “intelligent” only, insinuating that it’s for the middle class. The repetition of the word “All” doesn’t only emphasise on the point but also suggests that the teacher, Hector has a “posh” accent of which may come naturally to the reader, it is often associated with higher class and a high status suggesting that Hector is possibly middle class himself and also Hectors level of vocab also suggests that he is highly educated. Here Bennett is exploring the themes of socioeconomic inequality, where financial wealth and social class affects your educational status. The alliteration of “noble and necessary” reinforces and almost lengthens his point, making it memorable. The repetition would make the reader embrace Hector as being authoritative as the repetition “All, all” captivates the reader’s attention and shows who Hector is as a character. The alliteration of “noble and necessary” also does this, it emphasises the importance of what Hector is saying without being barefaced.
In the documentary School swap- class divide Jo ward uses the common saying “It is not what you know, it’s who you know” and expresses how the young people have an “Oxford walk” being relaxed and nonchalant, this could be because of how they are treated or it could be in result of how they are taught- to be bold, Jo ward later on states that Public schools have “easy access” to famous people, knowledgeable people and that the students have the idea as she states that “this will be me soon”. The repetition of “who you know” emphasises on the fact that it’s not education that will get you far in life or how much you know but where you stand in society and who you know. This will make the reader either completely agree or disagree with that statement as there are those who haven’t had a upper class upbringing and yet have got far in life but however in general working class seem to stay working class and middle class seem to stay middle class.
The use of rhetorical strategies
In The history boys Bennett’s, characterization of Irwin is defined by his employment of various rhetorical strategies to make controversial arguments regarding historical events “What has that got to do with it? What has that got to with anything?” Irwin teaches the boys his preferred method of attacking a historical question; he tells them to argue an unpopular opinion of which was, the United States was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour, as a way of shocking the examiners and grabbing their attention. His idea of having to entertain the examiners rather than just impress them with intellect alone speaks more to the educational climate than it does to Irwin’s teaching style or even the boys’ preparedness for the exam, the fact that one has to go to the extra mile to impress the examiners by not basing it on knowledge but on entertainment as a factor, could be a reason why comprehensive school students can’t get in to these public schools, independent schools seem to have a limit to what they teach, they seem to focus on other ways of expressing intelligence, i.e through talent, They don’t really choose to go beyond that as that would be going out of their way, financially and timely. Despite their impressive A-Level scores, the Headmaster believes that the boys need “polish;” their applications must be flashy if they want a chance of gaining entrance into Oxford or Cambridge. This suggests that the competition for spots at top-tier universities has become impossibly intense for students at public schools. The use of the rhetorical question has the effect of also making the reader query the question itself, and intertwine in the topic they are discussing.
In the two-part documentary School swap- class divide The head teacher, Jo ward of the comprehensive school, Bemrose, also practices the rhetorical strategy to emphasise her point, implying there is no other way to back up reasoning “I am really interested in, what it is in the private schools which is leading to those higher prestige careers? Because if there is something I can replicate here, I’d like to do that. And I like to think that they might learn one or two things from us as well.” This expresses her sarcasm towards the idea that private schools effortlessly get into higher prestige careers. This makes the viewer accept Jo wards point, and almost leaves them no room to argue against it.
The use of verbs, adverbs and adjectives
In the play The History Boys Act one by Alan Bennett, Hector opens his class by congratulating the boys on a good performance on their A Levels. Hector calls the exams “longed-for emblems of your conformity.” He uses the adjective “longed-for” to express how exams have always had the strategy of making students adapt. Now that summer is over, he says, the boys are back to continue with their real education. The use of the adjective emphasises on what Hector is saying, this opening scene introduces the boys as successful, intelligent students, with high hopes for their own futures.
In the play, Timms asks if they should cheat. Irwin uses the vague adverb “Possibly,” and then the bell rings. The vagueness of the adverb would make the reader suspicions as to what Irwin directly means by “Possibly” Irwin later on tells Dakin that “there isn’t time for joking around” Here through the use of the Present participle verb “joking” and present tense contraction “Isn’t”, Irwin reminds the boys and the audience that their class status makes them less likely to get into Oxford and Cambridge. This would also remind the reader that game of admissions is not straightforward in the Marxist viewed society we live in, class makes it unequal, and so the boys have to use strategy and cunning to get ahead. This view takes into account the way that social dynamics work in the real world. Hector’s vision of education, on the other hand, is focused on a personal relationship with history and literature, and is more idealistic. Irwin’s amoral strategies, then, are more useful in helping the boys achieve things in an unfair social system.
In the two-part documentary, School swap- class Mark Mortimer states how what they do in private schools is relevant “it is to prepare for what is expected” the indistinct verb in this case “expected” emphasises on societies viewpoint on education, and how there is a level of expectancy, this would make the viewer, effortlessly relate to this as there is not just the expectation in school, but in society as a whole.
The use of Biblical allusion
In the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett, Dakin says, “you’re hitting us again, sir.” Suggesting that it happens often and Hector needs reminding that its wrong. Hector says that “whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust…it is a pact. Bread eaten in secret.” This is a reference to the Bible, Proverbs 9:17. He also quotes Deuteronomy, saying that the boys should “choose life” rather than Oxford and Cambridge. This may confuse the reader as not only is Hector Homosexual and quoting the anti-gay bible but he’s also suggesting that choosing Oxbridge is like dying and there won’t be life, this is very puzzling as he’s saying things that not only may not make sense, but he’s quoting the bible of which goes against his sexuality. At his desk, he feigns despair again. Posner says, “Look up, My Lord,” and then he and Timms launch into a scene taken from King Lear, just after Lear’s death of which is also a bible allusion. Then the bell rings, and Hector jumps into the Lear scene, skipping ahead a few lines to say that he must go. Timms speaks a line of direct speech narration to the audience, clarifying that the hitting didn’t hurt them. It was a joke. This would make the reader feel like they are being talked to directly, and they are almost relevant within the play, this direct speech narration repeatedly occurs in the play. The Bible allusion suggests that Hector’s classroom is a space outside of the regular educational system: class with him is an almost spiritual experience. Through the playful King Lear scene, we understand that the students are willing participants in this “pact.” Hector’s physical playfulness also has sexual undertones, but as Timms notes, the boys respond in a mostly joking and accepting manner. However, their playful assertions also show that they understand that Hector’s sexual come-ons aren’t socially acceptable, at the time being LGBT was illegal.
The use of dialogue to convey different viewpoints
In the play The History Boys there is a dialogue between Headmaster and Mrs. Lintott, The headmaster asks using minor sentences, what her plans are for “these Oxbridge boys. You’re historians.” She remarks with the hyperbole “Their A Level results are very good”, the Headmaster follows the politeness principle of agreement by agreeing. Mrs. Lintott says with the oxymoron that she expects to do “more of the same” to prepare them for their University entrance exams, but the Headmaster says that it hasn’t worked before. He wants them to get into the best schools, Oxford and Cambridge, to raise the school’s profile. “Factually tip-top as your boys always are,” he says, “something more is required.” Mrs. Lintott asks what he has in mind, and he says that it’s something like “presentation.” Mrs. Lintott scoffs at this, saying that “properly organized facts need no presentation.” But the headmaster insists that the boys need more charm and “polish.” In this scene, we meet Mrs. Lintott, the only female character who speaks in the play and witness the way that she is marginalized within the school. She is expected to do the grunt work of providing a solid foundation in history, but when it comes time for the last important push to get students into prestigious universities, she is passed over. We also witness the way that the Headmaster looks at education as a way to achieve social status. He wants that status not only on behalf of the boys, but even more so, for the school and himself. His worldview is at odds with Hector’s, and this creates tension between them.
In the two-part documentary, School swap- class divide it is said that public school students are surrounded by “well-behaved students” who all want to succeed, they only seem to have positive peer pressure, as she states “nobody wants to be “the cool kid” in comparison to state schools where negative sub-cultures, labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy is very much alive in schools as well as society as a whole and causes negative peer pressure of which affects students in many ways. Jo ward also expresses how supportive families is a big difference between state and public schools, as parents at public schools pay for their children to have their private education and will of course therefore be supportive whereas state schools lack this, parents don’t always seem to work with the school system and aren’t always present/active, this could be for many reasons such as full-time work, material deprivation and relative deprivation where families don’t have access to the things needed in education such as books, laptops, pens and school trip money. Jo ward then concludes to the question “why do private schools do better?” she says “The family you come from, they need to prioritise your education” also “In a school where the same values and principles are presented day after day after day, students are bound to do well”.
The use of long length of turn to covey meaning through lists etc
In the play The history boys Irwin takes a long length of turn to get his point across “Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race” Irwin uses this simile to show that most private schoolers have the upper class advantage as they are brought up differently, and are placed on a higher ranking in our hierarchal society, they have experiences of which students from comprehensive schools could possibly never have experienced “You will be competing against boys and girls… they will been to Rome and Venice, Florence and Perugia” Irwin uses the list to express that these private school students are effortlessly advantaged and don’t have to work as hard to get to the level as the comprehensive school students do. The use of the long length of turn will make the reader really acknowledge Irwin when he speaks, as the long length of turn suggests that he is an important character and his words are valued.
In the documentary School swap- class divide they pointed out possible ways of breaking the deep divide that too often exists between state and private schools, there seem to be a deep divide and in the documentary they dig deeper into it and discover that this divide is almost unbreakable due to access, comprehensive schools don’t have access(The money) to have the luxury of having, for example multiple tennis courts, Dinner parties 3/4 times a term, of which we saw in the list of which I believe would partly shock the viewer, especially if they also do not have access or knowledge of this. It was seen by Jo ward, the comprehensive school head teacher, that what makes public school education very different to state school education is that, “it seems that it’s not what happens in the classroom but outside the classroom” where many activities, moral and rule teachings take place, they seem to do activities which are almost like work experience with a wide range of choice such as engineering, science, cadets this is not as practical and accessible for state schools. They are given rules “No phones, 9:45pm- bed time, strict uniform, no shorts, no hair down, no big earrings, limited makeup, and no hair dye, wake up at 7am, polished shoes etc.” the use of this list, is to show how private schools have multiple strict rules in comparison to state schools. Why? Mark Mortimer replied that “it is to prepare for what is expected” this is definitely an advantage over state schools as public schools have full watch over their students and choose what they do in their spare time whereas that is not the case for state schools as they have the basic school timing of 9- 3:30, 5 times a week, with their students and from there they have no control.
The use of witticism to convey humour
In the play “The history boys” Alan Bennett tends to use an outstanding comic form of which may be seen as “private school” witticisms, where there seems to be an aspect of ego and almost an automatic tone of voice, a “stuck-up” tone when reading it. Darwin seems to flout modesty “You’ve got crap handwriting sir” he uses dysphemism to get his point across, which can be perceived as rude and arrogant of which seems to resemble the stereotypical view on private school students, he uses the colloquial term “crap” which indicates his roots of being from a typical comprehensive school background where language of such is used casually. This would make the reader feel as if even the preparations for getting into Oxbridge is changing the character and putting them upon that stereotypical banister of being above & more important, however Darwin is a confident character and doesn’t hold back.
The play, “The history boys” uses a range of language devices to convey a sense of meaning, a meaning of education value in society, how comprehensive school is not as valued.
In the documentary “School swap- class divide” the use of language devices helps to provide a close insight into the perceived educational gulf between the two schools, the attitudes of the students and their teachers towards each other, and asks whether a private education is a ticket to a top job later in life or not.
Both texts use similar terminology to express the similar references to comprehensive and private school education.
Major Themes in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys
Within ‘The History Boys’, first performed in 2004, we are immersed into a 1980’s setting in the world of male sixth form pupils and their efforts to attain a placement in the prestigious Oxbridge universities. At such times, the attitudes of many major themes within the novel were part of a large hotbed of change, homosexulaity was widely unacceped, the education system undergone major structural changes, which had overcome the transition of art and culture based learning to a somewhat more curriculum centred schooling system that we see today. It is therefore fair to say that there is evidence within such works that society does change in terms of abstract concepts and attitudes to different groups of people. However, the dialogue within the play contrasts highly with the message given in terms of context- the actions of Hector still being illegal, as well as the boys’ discussion with Irwin and Hector regarding historical events which demonstrated their ability to categorise events as a similar sort of monotonous cycle of mistakes to which nobody learns from and falls into again.
An example of this cycle is during the interview scene within the play, which sees characters state their idea of what ‘History’ truly denotes as. Rudge simply describes History on page 85 as simply ‘one fucking thing after another’, suggesting through the expletive ‘fucking’ that Rudge is irritated by the lack of change in terms of history being almost a repetitive concept, from which nobody really seems to learn their lesson from past failures. In terms of phonology, the morpheme ‘f’ is quite guttural, emphasising his disregard and irritability in the situation of a mock interview, and could even be interpreted as his dislike for the constant pattern of historical events of the subject itself. Within the same chapter the less heard voice of Dorothy Lintott states how she thinks that all events in history are all in being categorised under the failures of men, in her opinion making it ‘women following behind with the bucket’. The common noun ‘bucket’ is an object associated with clearing up spills and mistakes, emphasing her ideas of men contributing nothing much other than messes for women behind to clear up. The fact that women in this example are ‘following behind’ suggests that although women are capable of fixing mistakes, they are still expected to follow under the command of males. This presents the idea that within society, the role of women has little changed despite the undeniable influences and work of women within World War One whilst men fought overseas and women were left to run production units. The fact that this is really the first time that Dorothy is heard explicitly giving her opinion to the students and the audience demonstrates how her opinion is mostly overlooked by other people, seizing the moment for herself to talk about her opinion of History when the gathering was assembled to help the boys prepare for university interviews.
Noticeably within the play, there is also a strong recurring theme of socioeconomic inequality, demonstrated within the scene where Irwin describes the advantages of the wealthy families over the boys in terms of their education. Irwin insinuates that without taking a different stance to exams to add flare to their papers, they will be left behind in the shadows of richer families who will have send their children to visit the areas of study so they can write from experience. This is exhibited within page 87, which states ‘”Remember also, our puny efforts notwithstanding, you will be up against boys and girls who will have been taught better than you.” This suggests that the students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be favoured in terms of attaining coveted places at prestigious universities not only from having a higher quality of quality education, but also the status of being associated with a private education. Within such declaration Bennett refers to what he believes to be the inherent inequalities of the British educational system, the public and private schools that therefore give wealthier families an automatic advantage over students from public schools who may not be as financially privileged. In terms of context, Bennett hasn’t been afraid to voice such opinions regarding the educational system through the character of Irwin, who remains true to the curriculum but ceases to find the Educational System that it is part of to be just and provide each student in the UK with equal opportunities. One way that Irwin introduces such flair into the essay of his pupils is by harshly marking the work submitted, as well as teach the boys to enter the back door of a question rather than take the popular route to an answer, or “even better, go through the side door’. This alternative view demonstrates the extents undergone by pupils to compete with private school pupils, who have received an advantage due to their wealth, a flaw in society that has always existed as a rich and poor divide in terms of opportunities being more readily for those who are wealthier, or even within terms of subcategories, Old Money.
However, despite the setbacks that each character supposedly possesses due to their lack of family wealth, each character within the play are offered a placement in Oxford, an opportunity that would have been fought by private and public schools alike. Such a historic divide is therefore not as evident within the closing stages of the play, of which offers such a fair resolution in comparison to the competitive element within the rest of the play- describing private school pupils as ‘thoroughbreds for this one particular race.’ Such semantics of racing could be interpreted as the pupils racing towards success, whilst the educational board gamble upon their eventual position, an idea somewhat mirrored by the rigorous testing that pupils undergo throughout their school lives. Overall, the play conveys the message that society has undergone changes, albeit several main issues within society still remaining, such as attitudes to women. Although it cannot be denied that there will have been small amendments to attitudes, the circumstances surrounding sexim remains unchanged overall, the play would not have been relatable should parallels have not been seen between today’s society and the one Bennett described in 2004, of 1980. One way of describing history in a way that fits such motifs conveyed within the play is simply the fact that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. No two events can be exactly the same, the past cannot be repeated, but yet parallelisms can be drawn between the events that are simply ‘one fucking thing after another’. This is like the society that Alan Bennett speaks of, although changes have been made that impacts upon it, such as the National Curriculum, pupils from different origins and financial backgrounds are still receiving a somewhat less profitable education than others. This is a similarity between the newer and pre-modified society that can be deemed unchanged due to the lack of solution to oppose the problem of the rich and poor divide in schooling, although measures for this to be eradicated have been introduced, and new lengths explored.
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