Reviewed by Steve Callahan
The poet W.B. Yeats once said that education is not filling a bucket, it's lighting a fire. It's a current question in our schools: should we "teach to the test" or should we teach the subject. The History Boys
, by Alan Bennett, has opened at the Rep, and it examines the classic conflict between these two approaches to what should happen in the class-room.
It's set in an English boys' school where the class is being groomed for the "Oxbridge" entrance exams. Old Hector, a very senior member of the faculty, is one of those brilliant, tyrannical, eccentric, demanding, entertaining, inspiring teachers whom students both fear and love, and whom they will remember as having changed their lives. He stands in that illustrious line that stretches from Socrates to Miss Jean Brodie to Prof. Kingsfield in The Paper Chase to old Hugh in Translations. Utterly drenched in western culture he has all of history, literature and philosophy at his fingertips. In a world where the word "passion" has become so debased that health-care companies proclaim, "diabetes is our passion!" I can, without hyperbole, say that Hector is passionate about his teaching. These clever boys are quick to respond to his tutelage. His fire ignites the sparklers that are there deep in every young boy's bosom, and his class often takes on the aspect of a riotous, joyous, intellectually ecstatic literary food fight.
But the headmaster is keen on ensuring that his boys all pass the exam, so he brings in an ambitious young teacher, Irwin, to train them in the tricks of exam-taking. Irwin teaches tactics-it's not enough to know the facts, you must "spin" your essay; always take a contrarian position. And, yes, toss in some quotes from Auden if you can.
It's a splendid cast, led by Thomas Carson as Hector in a bravura performance. (Carson did that wonderful Capt. Shotover in last season's Heartbreak House.) Bryant Richards is strong in the complex role of Irwin. The eight "boys", if truth be told, are all just a bit long in the tooth, but they do fine work. Especially convincing and engaging are Jonathan Monk, as Posner, the shy Jewish homosexual; and Matt Leisy (with a lovely north-country touch to his voice) as Scripps, who has a gentle infatuation with religion. From time to time we are treated to song, with Leisy at the piano and often Monk displaying his quite lovely voice. Eric Gilde is cocky and macho as Dakin.
But there are problems with the play itself. Alan Bennett yields to the temptation to pad his plot fashionably with homosexual peccadilloes and an utterly irrelevant and unsupported feminist diatribe. And there's a sort of deus ex machina motorcycle accident. The student/teacher sexual element is rather a red herring, distracting from what I think was Bennett's original theme. In the end, nevertheless, we learn that the point of education is not only to absorb one's culture, but to "Pass it on!"
A perceptive article in the recent American Scholar discusses professor/student intimacy. It's a popular theme recently on stage and screen, and it is, of course, physical intimacy that is always presented. Yes, commonly students are stricken with "crushes" on their charismatic teachers; but they don't want to go to bed with these inspiring teachers-they want to have mind sex with them. Such teachers have, like Hector, ignited not a fire in the loins but a fire in the soul. The American public, by and large, simply doesn't understand this kind of intellectual intimacy and is deeply suspicious of it. But it's this fire that is essential in passing that flame of culture from each generation to the next.
Don't miss this excellent production of History Boys. It plays at the Rep through September 30th, 2007.