The History Boys Summary

Alan Bennett

The History Boys

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The History Boys Summary

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The History Boys is a play by British playwright Alan Bennett, first performed at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2004. Set at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield, it follows a group of male history students preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams while being mentored by a trio of teachers with contrasting styles: Hector, an eccentric teacher who loves knowledge; Lintott, a more by-the-book teacher; and Irwin, a stern substitute teacher. All three teachers have personal problems of their own, as they help the group of adolescent boys through academic and personal struggles. Exploring themes such as the purpose of education, sexuality, gender roles, and the value of history and knowledge, The History Boys was critically acclaimed and went on to play for a hundred and eighty five performances on Broadway. It won both the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and the 2006 Tony Award for Best Play, and was adapted into a 2006 film directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring the original London cast of the play.

The History Boys is set at a boy’s secondary school in the 1980s, and focuses on a core cast of eight boys and three teachers. Hector, an older, experienced teacher is ambivalent about being assigned to a course specifically designed to get the boys admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. In the faculty room, Headmaster Felix Armstrong and history teacher Mrs. Lintott discuss these so-called “Oxbridge Boys”. This is the biggest class of contenders they’ve ever had, and Headmaster Armstrong praises Mrs. Lintott for teaching them well. However, he believes they need further help to give them that final push to succeed—although he has his doubts about one of the students, Rudge. Armstrong has hired a young man named Irwin, only a few years older than the students, to help prepare the boys for the exam and he interrupts Hector’s lesson to tell him that he’s been assigned Irwin as a teaching partner. Hector is furious, feeling his job is being usurped. At the end of class, Hector takes his student Scripps out for a motorcycle ride, a tradition of his, which causes much discussion among the students.

Irwin emphasizes to the boys that they’ll have to stand out to gain admission to Oxbridge; it’s not enough to just know the facts. The play occasionally contains cut-aways to the audience, such as when a student, David Posner, tells them that Irwin’s unconventional approach to history will one day make him a successful historical journalist. In a later scene, Mrs. Lintott and Irwin are talking about how he’s getting on with the students, and Irwin tells the older teacher that Posner has confessed to him that he is gay. Posner has a crush on fellow student Dakin, and while Dakin has said he’s straight, it’s clear from his interactions with Irwin that he’s developing feelings for the young teacher. Hector and Irwin discuss their teaching strategies for the Oxbridge exam. Irwin doesn’t feel like Hector’s students are applying the lessons from his class to the exam, and Hector states that he considers entrance exams to be the enemy of education. Irwin, who accepts exams as a fact of life, asks Hector what use the knowledge he teaches is if the boys don’t apply it. Hector believes that what the boys learn in his class will serve them throughout their lives, not just for exams.

The Headmaster checks in with Irwin, who isn’t confident that the boys will pass the exam. The Headmaster blames Hector’s teaching methods, because they don’t produce quantifiable results. Afterwards, Mrs. Lintott tells Irwin that the Headmaster is the main enemy of culture at the school. Halfway through the term, Hector is called to the Headmaster’s office and told that the Headmaster’s wife saw Hector molesting one of his students on a motorcycle ride. Hector denies the accusation, but the Headmaster demands his resignation. Not knowing that Hector’s been let go, Dakin asks Hector if they can go for a ride on his motorcycle, but Hector refuses. The play then flashes forward several years. Irwin, in a wheelchair, is narrating a television program about history. Posner approaches him and asks if anything ever happened between him and Dakin, because he’s writing a newspaper story about the incident. Irwin angrily refuses to give him any information. A flashback to the start of Hector and Irwin’s first joint lesson shows that Hector nearly broke down after his meeting with the Headmaster. However, their first joint lesson about World War II and the Holocaust leads to a debate about whether to focus on the facts or the human stories. Later, Irwin is informed by the Headmaster that Posner’s parents complained about his teaching style regarding the Holocaust, and Irwin is ordered to write an apology.

The term concludes, and each of the teachers meets with the Headmaster. Hector knows he’ll be leaving at the end of the term, and Mrs. Lintott has decided to retire. She expects that Irwin will be hired to take her place, but after the meeting she informs Hector that the Headmaster has told her he’ll take her place. The boys then describe their experiences taking the exams. In the end, all of them get places at either Oxford or Cambridge. Dakin confronts Irwin, accusing him of lying about where he went to college. He then propositions a hesitant Irwin, and convinces him to get a drink the next Sunday. Dakin reveals to his classmates that he blackmailed the Headmaster into keeping Hector on, and he wants to go for a motorcycle ride with Hector as a reward. The Headmaster refuses to allow this, as he wants Hector to stop the motorcycle rides. He suggests that Hector take Irwin on the bike instead, and Irwin agrees. Scripps then addresses the audience, telling them that Hector’s bike crashed and killed him, leaving Irwin paralysed and in a wheelchair. The final scene of the play takes place at Hector’s funeral, where the boys eulogize him and Mrs. Lintott tells the audience of his students’ future successes.

Alan Bennett is a British playwright, screenwriter, actor, and author. A prolific author, he has won multiple Laurence Olivier Awards, British Academy Awards, Evening Standard Awards, and Tony Awards. He is known as an advocate for education and the British public school system.