Alan Bennett's The History Boys, winner of the 2006 Tony Award for Best Play, recently received a regional premiere at Southern Rep. The play follows eight students in a grammar school in Sheffield, England, in 1986.
The central conflict concerns two different attitudes toward education. One is utilitarian. It focuses on preparing the students to score high on exams, particularly those of Oxford and Cambridge. Mr. Irwin (Lucas Harms) embodies this attitude. He is hired by the authoritarian headmaster (Jerry Lee Leighton) to rescue these students from the enjoyable chaos created by their current teacher Mr. Hector (David Hoover), who thinks education is about lifelong development. There's an unmade-bed quality about Mr. Hector, but he truly engages his students. When he gives a French lesson, no one is allowed to speak English. One of the kids sings a cabaret song. Another mischievously says he wants to work in a French brothel. Unflustered, Hector lets the students improvise a red-light scenario in which some of them act the parts of maids.
Amid this imaginative babble, the headmaster enters with Irwin. Nevermind that Hector has the boys speaking French and enjoying it. He's not supposed to be teaching French. He's supposed to be drilling them for their exams, but Hector hates tests. He considers them an enemy to education. In fact, he considers education itself an enemy to education. He's a radical in his bumbling, endearing way. The English have a genius for eccentricity, and Hector is an eccentric of the highest order.
He rides to school each morning on a huge, snorting motorcycle. His students help him remove his leather jacket, helmet and gear, identifying each article of clothing in French. Hector likes to give students a ride home after school, and he also likes to fondle them while they sit in the pillion seat. The boys don't treat this as a big deal, but it gives the headmaster righteous grounds for dumping Hector.
The single-sex world of the school also explains some of Miss Lintott's tartness and irritability. She's a history teacher and the only woman in this corner of the academy. Lintott (Beverly Trask) has many interesting scenes with her male colleagues, but her big moment is a diatribe about neglected women historians.
It's clear where the playwright's sympathies lie. When it comes to pedagogy, he prefers the Socratic clown to the Machiavellian strategist. In some ways, Hector seems to represent a passing era. It's like we're witnessing the industrial revolution applied to schooling. Hector, the craftsman, is out of date. He's been overtaken by an assembly line of tricks and gimmicks meant to hone the latest model student for competitive exams. According to Hector, the worst mistake a student can make is to write an essay that's dull. Better to invent a provocative refutation of some accepted theory. Then you'll be noticed. The truth is not only irrelevant, it can get in the way.
The teachers' philosophical struggle takes place against a background of often amusing high jinks by students. The class clearly likes Hector despite his casual advances. His classes are fun. On the other hand, maybe this prim new nerd of a teacher really can help them get into Cambridge or Oxford.
A touching moment of the play comes when Hector realizes his doomed status as a teacher. He has 'pissed away his life" in this nowhere place and nowhere profession, he moans. Hector suffers a momentary meltdown, and the stunned kids try to comfort him. But his tenure is coming to an end.
Director Fred Nuccio gathered a gifted cast and kept up a brisk but unhurried pace. A tip of the hat goes to Brian Rosenberg (original music), Linda Fried (costume design), Shannon Miller (scenic, lighting and sound design) and the rest of the crew. Thanks to FourFront Theatre for staging this oddly enjoyable production in its inaugural season.
- In The History Boys, instructors Mr. Irwin (Lucas Harms) and Mr. Hector (David Hoover) take radically different approaches to education.