While enjoying the crackling wit and engrossing conflicts presented by director Nicholas Hytner 's sparkling cast in Alan Bennett's coming-of-age comedy/drama, The History Boys, you might want to stop a moment to wonder, "Would I be enjoying this as much if they were girls?"
Hold that thought for a moment.
Bennett sets his play in the mid-80's, during the final year of grammar school (high school to us yanks) for eight young university hopefuls. As the British educational system works, students are required to choose a major subject for which they'll be taking their college entrance exams. There are special exams and interviews for the esteemed spots open at Oxford and Cambridge.
To prepare for exams, our history-focused lads are drilled on dates and facts by Mrs. Lintott, (the hilariously arid Frances de la Tour), but are schooled more on the life-enhancing aspects of education by English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths). Hector's idea of a practical way of learning French is to have his boys improvise a scene where one of them visits a brothel. Lessons learned from poetry, classic films and the occasional piano solo are all a part of his curriculum.
But getting students into Oxford and Cambridge is the headmaster's (Clive Merrison) main concern, so Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a younger teacher of aggressive alpha male preppiness is brought in to share Hector's class time and educate the students on how to stand out in the crowded field of university hopefuls by filling their essays and interviews with controversial opinions that go against the grain and make memorable impressions. The contrast of Irwin's immediate goal-oriented methods as opposed to Hector's desire to use education as a life-long tool divides both students and facility.
And then there's the matter of Hector's practice of fondling his students. Commuting to school via motorcycle, he always offers to give one of the boys a lift, during which he'll reach back and cup the lad's genitals. And perhaps the most discussion-worthy issue of The History Boys, and possibly representing a major difference in American and British culture, is that the boys never seem to feel violated in any way. Like his occasional smacks on the head for an incorrect response, it's something they put up with from a beloved and respected teacher/father figure. For some it's a sign of prestige, as not every student gets an invitation to ride. For others it's a way of using their youth and sexuality to get what they want from a sad old man. Though Bennett certainly never suggests that sexual abuse is something to be taken lightly, this special relationship is presented as something, although wrong, perhaps less unacceptable.
And though the author never approaches gender issues, there's no doubt in my mind that Broadway audiences would never accept the notion that girls in their final year of high school could be fondled by a male teacher without feeling abused. But would 17-year-old girls feeling blasé about being fondled by a female teacher seem less offensive? How about a female teacher touching high school senior boys? I think we can all agree that each of these actions is wrong, but does our society tend to rank identical instances of sexual abuse as less serious than others, depending strictly on the genders of those involved? And if so, is that right? Forgive me for straying away a bit from what Alan Bennett wrote, but good theatre can provoke thought and these are some of the thoughts The History Boys provoked in me.
Griffiths' Hector is as charismatic as he is pitiable. He's given a rock star entrance, clad in a biker's helmet, leather jacket and dashing red scarf. Like hero-worshipping flunkies, the boys remove his outer layer, revealing the brown suit and bow tie of his profession.
The title ensemble (Andrew Knott, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker, and James Corden, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett) all make their individual marks to varying degrees, but work best as ensemble. Dressed in their matching suits and ties, their antics are sometimes reminiscent of The Beatles in their Richard Lester directed films, especially in Ben Taylor's black and white video clips played between scenes to Richard Sisson's tension-infused rock music.
If an American cast takes over for this British cast, which will play on Broadway until September 3rd, it will be interesting to see if cultural differences dictate noticeable changes in the way the teacher/student relationship is played. But for now, we're treated to something quite splendid.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell Moore
Center: Jamie Parker, Andrew Knott, Dominic Cooper and James Corden
Bottom: Samuel Barnett and Richard Griffiths