Learning curves

  SpeakEasy’s The History Boys; Trinity’s Paris by Night
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 8, 2008

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THE HISTORY BOYS: Alan Bennett’s Tony winner sets up a duel between knowledge for its own sweet sake and cogitating to a purpose.

The lineup for Boston Theater Marathon, Sunday, May 11, at the BCA's Calderwood Pavillion. By Jeffrey Gantz.
From Mr. Chips to Miss Jean Brodie, charismatic teachers have been the stuff of drama. But British writer Alan Bennett’s literate 2004 comedy The History Boys, which won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Play and was whittled into a film that same year, supplies more than one influential educator, setting up a duel between knowledge for its own sweet sake and cogitating to a purpose. In other words, it’s a debate that treads the same ground as that cynical joke alleging what an English major really needs to learn is how to say, “Would you like fries with that?” The erudite and eclectic Bennett, whose work runs the gamut from Beyond the Fringe to The Madness of George III, would certainly beg to differ.

The History Boys, which is enjoying a warm and astute New England premiere from SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through June 7), is set at a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980s. Eight middle-class sixth-formers — the boys of the title — are being groomed to sit for the Oxbridge exams, their heads crammed by the eccentric, Auden-inspired Hector with language and his passion for it and by glib young interloper Irwin with an exam-taking strategy that boils down to being cleverly contrarian in order to stand out. Some have seen the play as a metaphor for 1980s Thatcherized Britain, and it does include a song by the Pet Shop Boys. But to me The History Boys is more redolent of the 1950s, when Bennett himself was a non-public-school-pedigreed Oxbridge candidate (and the inept homosexual groping by Hector might more likely have been regarded as harmless). Throw in Robin Williams and some old school ties and you have Dead Poets Society with a higher IQ.

Bennett’s script is characteristically rich, contrasting not just two but three teaching methods — the boys are also mentored by Dorothy Lintott, a female historian who, after a career spent sifting through “five centuries of masculine incompetence,” believes in both the randomness of history and a firm grounding in the facts. And the complex comedy is as chock with glimpses into the human heart as with philosophies of education. Sometimes the two mesh, as in a scene where a subdued Hector walks the most sensitive student, Posner, through Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” conveying both its poetic significance and his own intimations of insignificance. True, the play is talky (an hour was cut turning it into the film), but what witty, provocative talk it offers — not to mention the snippets from old movies, the music hall, and, in director Scott Edmiston’s rendition, Adam Ant.

The SpeakEasy staging unfolds on a lofty library setting by Janie Howland that seems to contain not only a million musty books but also, in its tucked-away gewgaws, the very arbitrariness of history. With its various levels and orifices, the set works well for the choreographed entrances and exits (the history boys are not only classmates but something a of a vaudeville team bent on entertaining Hector), and Edmiston makes canny use of the carved wooden stair for the almost military campaigns of psychological and sexual aggression and retreat that pepper the play.

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Related: Year in Theater: Staged right, Dying breeds, The History Boys, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Shirley MacLaine, Stephen Berenson, Thomas Hardy,  More more >
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