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.
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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 […]