Monday, September 25, 2006

I saw The History Boys. I'd wanted to like it, but I didn't.

One reviewer praised the play for being chock full of one-liners. This is true, and it's a problem. All subtlety and slowness are sacrificed for the cheap laugh, and the shallowness of it is exhausting. Because the characters are vehicles for one-liners, they're not real people. The more developed a character was, the more he seemed a caricature. This was especially true of the headmaster, Irwin, Hector, and Posner. Posner is the kind of ostentatiously sensitive, utterly defenseless gay teenager, full of comically rueful appraisals of himself, whom you only come across on a Broadway stage. I don't think he would have lasted very long in that school, or any school. The other boys were wisecracking slouches, which was more believable, but they were even more one-dimensional than Posner. More one-dimensional but less caricatured, like objects seen from a distance, since Bennett doesn't expend much effort on them. (Part of the problem might be this: the boys want nothing more than to be funny, whereas Posner, caricature though he is, wants to be taken seriously, yet Bennett forces him to deliver jokes anyway.)

And you never saw the boys adjusting to one another, or even hesitating and not knowing what to say, as they would in real life; that would have entailed attenuating their exaggerated features and rationing the one-liners, and Bennett loves his caricatures.

There's a similar problem with the sentimental Broadway showtunes that the boys regularly sing (complete with dance routines). I couldn't think of them as schoolboys; instead I saw theater people wallowing in nostalgia and acting out their professional self-love.

I like showtunes, and I like teenagers. But I've never known a teenager who loved camp, let alone a whole classroom of teenagers. And this play didn't for a minute convince me that it could happen.

Another reviewer said that you get to know all the boys; they're all individuals. In fact you really only get to know four of them, and all of these are defined by their attitudes (varied but clichéd) toward sex. This is the only kind of individuality that Bennett is capable of breathing into them. It's strange and regrettable, considering how many scenes of lessons there are in the play, and the infinite ways in which personality can manifest itself in a classroom. But then none of these scenes lasts more than three minutes — long enough to deliver a barrage of one-liners, but not long enough for character development.

But all this is incidental to the biggest problem, which is the play's premise. It offers two versions of education: a messy, passionate affair, for its own sake and unto itself, represented by the Falstaffian Hector; and an exercise in glibness, purveyed by the sleek future TV host, Irwin. Hector is on his way out; he represents the beloved past of education; Irwin represents the future, and we're meant to hate what he represents (if not the man himself). He has been hired to get the boys into Oxford or Cambridge. They have the grades, thanks to another teacher, dry, solid but unimaginative; what they need now is polish and class, and the way to impress admissions interviewers, Irwin tells them, is boldly to take the most counterintuitive view of a historical event or development, secure in the knowledge that brazenness will win the day.

There are several problems with this:

— I know that admissions interviewers would say that they're not looking for flash or class, but for something, anything, beyond a plodding recitation of facts — analysis, passion, opinion supported by evidence. It's an unanswerable position, and one that the play doesn't — can't — consider.
— Passion and appreciation are essential, but they're not the alpha and omega of education, even in the humanities. There's also the painstaking business of getting to know the language from all angles, of using it effectively, of matching words to things, and of learning to read closely. There was none of this, because rhetoric in this play is Irwin, is spin, TV, polish, cynicism, shallowness, etc. On the other side of this false dichotomy we get the boys' reenactments of love scenes from classic films (shallowness?), and Hector's self-involved ruminations. Of course there's such a thing as neat rhetoric that masks an intellectual vacuum, but that's just a higher stage in the battle for clarity and eloquence. It's not a short-circuit, and good teachers and students are not powerless against demagogic rhetoric. In fact, that may be what annoyed me most: the suggestion that good teachers are by definition helpless mumblers, insightful by the fireside (so to speak), but unable to defend themselves against fast talkers from the hard and shiny real world.

The big irony is that for all Hector's (and presumably Bennett's) disdain for style, flash, and class, The History Boys is as guilty of glibness as Irwin.

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