“The History Boys” at TimeLine Theatre Co.
“Stalin was a sweetie.” Hitler: “not a crazed lunatic but a statesman.” “Art. They get away with murder.” Poets: “most of them seem to have enjoyed the war.” “Literature is actually about losers.” “Truth is no more at issue in an examination than at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.” “If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher, study Henry VIII.” “History is women following behind with the bucket.” History: “It’s one fucking thing after another.”
If you’re finding that one of your brows is raised, if you’re bewitched, bothered, or bewildered, then you’ve probably yet to experience the work a compulsive ironist. The quotations cited above can be found in “The History Boys,” the Best Play Tony Award winner of 2006, which is now at TimeLine Theatre, under the splendid direction of Nick Bowling. The ironist in question is Alan Bennett, a cultural export from Britain and, to say the obvious, a cheeky one at that. Yet academic cheekiness and the systematization of counter-intuition are the stuff of vice in Bennett’s play, vice that threatens to make the pursuit of knowledge-for-its-own-sake a thing of nostalgia.
Amid of it all are the Boys of the title. They’re the cream of the crop, A-level pupils, sure candidates for Oxford and Cambridge. There is one “oddity,” as the Headmaster (Terry Hamilton) puts it: Rudge (Michael Peters)—a jock-ish dunce, an assiduous note-taker and a self-proclaimed simpleton who boasts of having “enough chat to take me round the golf course.” The rest are quite bright in their own right, but also much to the credit of their teachers. One such is Mrs. Lintott (Ann Wakefield), whose penchant for pedantry lent the Boys a kind of mastery of Britain’s history. Her style is leveled by the flamboyance of Mr. Hector (Donald Brearley). Though Hector’s supposed subject is English, count on him to have the Boys play out an improv in French, act out scenes from American films, chirp the verses of Gracie Fields, and regurgitate poetry. Hector, in other words, does everything in his classes but prepare the Boys for their entrance exams. He’s reserved when it comes to knowledge and thinks it exclusive for personal use and something to be pursued for, well, its own sake.
Since their institution is suddenly endowed with its first set of viable runners to the top Universities, the Headmaster sees it fit to bring in another teacher to “polish” the Boys, to add “a bit of garnish” and “edge” to their otherwise seamless foundations. Help comes in the form of one Irwin (Andrew Carter), a pathological contrarian whose idea of impressing a faculty of esteemed admission judges is to say stuff like, The “real culprit” of Pearl Harbor was “President Roosevelt.” “History nowadays is a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment,” says Irwin—typical Barnett, this one a mordant jab to contemporary revisionism of popular historical nonfictions, like Pat Buchanan’s “The Unnecessary War,” referring to WWII, of all wars. Irwin will polarize Hector à la George Bernard Shaw. The latter’s Nietzschean regard for conventional wisdom will seduce the Boys, especially Dakin (Joel Gross), something like Martin Luther King watching his retinue switch over to the Malcolm X camp. Herein lies Bennett’s concern: can Irwin’s brow-raising propositions produced by counter-intuition possibly have a sincere owner?
Bowling adaptation is one of high fidelity to Bennett’s play. Seldom does the rendition go off script. There are few surprises here and there. Omissions are hardly noticeable. Right when you walk in the arena en route your seat, to your right you’ll be taken by a lovingly detailed and a charmingly quaint set design of the Boys’ bedrooms, each of which is characterized by individual personalities. The play is set in Thatcher’s Britain (during the 80s), so count on anti-Thatcherite placards on the walls, next to the other placards of, say, The Cure or Lawrence of Arabia. Cassette tapes of The Smiths lay about. I saw a copy of E. M. Forester’s Passage to India and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Such ornamentation, though unwritten in the Bennett script, nonetheless honors the sort of cultural associations to which the play appends. The play drops a bevy of names—Kafka, Houseman, Wittgenstein (who’s given a feminist spin of his Tractatus), et al—sometimes to the point of excess. Yet it’s hard to accuse Bennett of being a showoff as the play clearly favors Hectorism, to which the play is a heartfelt billet-doux. Bennett’s enthusiasm and jouissance for culture and all its ramifications can be felt through the élan of TimeLine’s ensemble. Pay attention to the care and savory with which Alex Weisman (who plays the lovelorn Posner) honors the latent cadence of the poems that he performs. This alone justifies the price of the bill.
To say that “The History Boys” is only about knowledge is like saying that “War and Peace” was only about warfare and its absence. The play is also about confronting one’s sexual orientation, the bureaucratic polity of the “current education system,” unrequited love, requited passions, and, for Scripps (Will Alan), coping with being the only one who doesn’t think that god is dead. In short, the facts of life. It is thus that after seeing the performance it has become my cultural duty to tell everyone to go see it. If it doesn’t move you, then, as a teacher might say, you probably weren’t paying attention.