The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Play Review

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

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.

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