The History Boys Articles

This is a collection of articles which analyse what Bennett is doing in terms of symbolism and dramatic devices on the plays various themes.

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The History Boys ­ Fighting for their Lives
Louisa Mellor analyses Alan Bennett's sustained use of war imagery in The History Boys.
The motif of war recurs throughout Alan Bennett's The History Boys. With references to the Boer war,
the World War 1 battles of Passchendaele and the Somme and the attack on Pearl Harbour, Bennett
mines a rich seam of military metaphor in the play. He uses this backdrop of combat to draw parallels
between military engagement and the symbolic battles his characters undergo in their experience of
education, adolescence and sexual identity.
As both dramatist and an erstwhile `history boy' himself, Bennett's focus on war in this play is apt.
Drama is a truncated form of narrative that tells stories through their most salient and significant
moments, just as the complex narratives of history are often reduced to a simple timeline of military
engagements. Strengthening the connection between this form and theme is the way the structure of
classical drama closely follows that of battle, both sharing inciting moments, action rising to climax and
in some form, resolution.
Irwin v. Hector
Bennett has publicly lamented the `filthy, futile deaths' of war in his autobiographical essays. In recent
years he has marched against the invasion of Iraq, an act of war which caused him to title his 2003 diary
in the London Review of Books `A Shameful Year'. In this same series of diaries, Bennett reveals himself
to have a foot in the Mrs Lintott school of historical interpretation by deriding ITV's populist treatment of
Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries as `wilfully inaccurate [...] silly melodramatics'. This
aversion to attentiongrabbing historical revision is the basis for the creation of Irwin's character.
In addition to its awards and celebratory reviews, The History Boys was also met with scorn by some
who found Bennett's portrayal of Irwin too crude a caricature of revisionist history. In Bennett's Untold
Stories, he cites his inspiration for the character as Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson and Norman Stone,
all historians who, according to Bennett, have `found that taking the contrary view pays dividends' and so
have developed the `habit of contention'. Roberts retaliated by accusing Bennett and the liberal left of
staggering arrogance in the assumption that there exists an essential historical `truth' that should not be
questioned. Roberts sees Bennett's play as stopping just short of equating his reevaluative approach to
history's `turning points' with the anathema of holocaust denial.
The reason behind such an accusation is the holocaust discussion Bennett stages in the play.
Structurally, the lesson functions as a climactic `battle' between the opposing ideologies of Hector and
Irwin, the play's protagonist and antagonist. The history boys are presented with a choice as to where to
lay their allegiance: at the feet of Irwin's modern brand of `dispassionate' distance or with Hector's
heartfelt `passion'. Hector suggests that objective analysis of recent historical tragedy demeans the
suffering involved while Irwin instructs the boys to distance themselves as `there is no period so remote
as the recent past'.
The Language of War
Bennett's dialogue in the play is replete with the lexis of war. Exams are `the enemy of education'
`Lieutenant Dakin [...] report[s] for duty' Hector and Posner use poetry to `carry on the fight' against
modernity Hector tells the boys they `defeat' him in the climactic scene of his breakdown and Dakin
boasts about his sex life through a crude yet clever extended metaphor of military invasion in which
Fiona is `[his] western front' with whom `meeting only token resistance', he happily achieves `the
Armistice'. The terminology of war provides Dakin with an arsenal of chatup lines: in his predatory
pursuit of Irwin he is seen drawing a similarly callous but entertaining parallel between Hitler's invasion of
Poland and his own move on Irwin.
It may seem in poor taste for Bennett's characters to speak about the grave subject of war in the same
breath as their sex lives, but this combination of seriousness and silliness is a key feature of his very
English comic perspective. Even a cursory glance at Bennett's Talking Heads monologues sees mental
illness twinned with a chip in a sugar bowl, prostitution with chiropody appointments and death with a
cream cracker. So despite Bennett's distrust of glib journalism masquerading as historical interpretation,
Dakin's assertion that were it not for a dental appointment, England may have lost the Second World
War is quintessential Bennett.
Drummer Hodge

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In a sensitive expression of fellow feeling at the end of Act One, Posner and Hector discuss the Hardy
poem `Drummer Hodge'. The subtext of this intimate poetry lesson is clear for the audience: Hector is
Hardy, the ageing poet and Posner the lost drummer boy, sent too young into battle and buried
`Uncoffined ­ just as found'.…read more

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Idiolect in drama
Reading Talking Heads and writing drama texts
In e12/13 Michael Rosen muses about his own idiolect ­ everything that makes his use of language
unique to him. All writers but especially writers of drama, need to think about idiolect when they're
creating characters. In good drama, the characters reveal themselves not just by what they say but also
by how they say it. Tiny nuances of meaning can be revealed through their choices of phrase.…read more

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So Susan, in `Bed Among the Lentils' often uses complex syntax. The side of her that is
the supposedly respectable Vicar's wife is expressed through her syntax, as when she says, `Had this
been a serious ambition I should have seen to it I was equipped with the skills necessary to its
achievement.…read more

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Mocked as dull and ordinary by the other characters, Rudge plays a significant role in the text,
acting as a counterpoint to the rest of the boys, and offering an alternative perspective on
events. So argues Rachel McIntyre.
In The History Boys, Rudge stands out, in the words of the Headmaster as an `oddity' and, on the
surface at least, Alan Bennett presents him as the least intelligent, most `dull' of the boys.…read more

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Even during the French lessons, Rudge's
suggestion is the sensible `dans un garage' whereas the others choose a `maison de passe'.
What is History?
Of all the characters in the play, he is the boy most distanced from Hector's eccentricity and takes the
most practical approach to history, believing Mrs Lintott's assertion, `It's history not histrionics' and, like
Scripps, he is suspicious of Irwin's iconoclastic approach.…read more

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Here James Middleditch reveals the complex layers of time, both in the construction of the
play and in its thematic exploration of the role of history and literature in people's lives.
At first sight, The History Boys could seem typical of Alan Bennett's distinctive dramatic style: a group
of characters, restricted almost entirely to a single location and a short period of time.…read more

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In this future time, Irwin meets one of the students, identified only, to
begin with, as `Man'. This label also expresses the passing of time through its contrast to `boy', the term
used in the title of the play and throughout to describe the students. This `Man' is Posner, perhaps the
most fragile of the boys, who is now in therapy and desperately clinging to his past. He says of
All the effort went into getting there and then I had nothing left.…read more

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Posner: No. Hardy.
Hector: Oh, how old was Hardy? When he wrote this, about sixty. My age, I suppose.
This misunderstanding allows the parallels between the poem and characters to be made through their
ages Posner and Hector become linked to Drummer Hodge and Hardy. This prompts a moving
discussion about loneliness and isolation.…read more


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