I read Alan Bennett's The History Boys over the weekend and thought it to be a funny, entertaining whirlwind of ideas, but it had some characters as stock as staples.
Slate, continuing their contrarian theatrical coverage, has probably one of the more incisive, though narrow, breakdowns of the play I have seen. Here is the Slate writer, David Greenberg, speaking of the play's character of Irwin, a history tutor/teacher, who espouses a belief in history as a type of performance art with substance taking a backseat to showiness.
No historian would defend such views, and none would promulgate them, either—which is why Irwin's character is ultimately unpersuasive. Had Bennett shown more restraint and empathy in creating Irwin, he could have given us two equally compelling ways of thinking about history—or, better still, two equally compelling lead characters, characters always more important than themes.
Dramaturgically, Greenberg seems to be right, but then he makes the mistake of pinning his critique to the "mouthpiece" character of a female teacher, Mrs Lintott:
Though Lintott can't be said to represent all feminist historians, her soliloquy accomplishes something like what feminist scholarship has done: upending received wisdom, resulting in a more expansive view of how things work. Yet her character, though important, is underdeveloped; and in consigning her
worthy viewpoint to a cameo role and framing history instead as the black-and-white drama of Hector vs. Irwin, it is Alan Bennett who succumbs to glibness—flashing his cleverness to dazzle his audience.
Without knowing it, Greenberg actually comes close to the drawback I found with the play.
Greenberg thinks the play's problem is that it is too black and white and overly focused on Hector and Irwin, but really it seems to be a memory play crossed with an idea play, but with no focus in either. It has a dreamy, memory play tone, but it is told from the mouths of several different characters, without any type of resolution of disparities. As currently executed it is not a bad experiment, but this would be a coup if Bennett had found a better way to weave his hybrid structure and loose imaginings into the ideas.
Reading the play I never found Irwin to be so completely bull-headed in his view of history, and surprisingly I found Irwin to be one of the least stock characters in the play. I actually found the play to be more about an expansion of the idea of educational theory to a larger canvas. David Greenberg is a historian and so it makes sense for him to approach the play from the historical perspective, and I welcome it.
But perhaps I too am seeing the play through my own Massachusetts lens, which tends to be conditioned, rightly or wrongly, to see such academic explorations only as they pertain to the ongoing MCAS debates.
Teach to the Test or not to Teach to Test?
That is the Question.
So, my primary thought after reading The History Boys? Exactly what is "the Test" to which we are or are not teaching? Is it life? Career? The character of Irwin, in his life seems genuinely asking those questions, all the way through. The ending codas of the students are what drive home these feelings.
Slate's coverage of theatre is always welcome, as it usually provides great fodder for discussion. I just wish it could be more regular.
And, to add to that thought; How about some theatre coverage in Salon?