Bennett play in London

Old Jan 6th, 2005, 08:31 AM
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Bennett play in London

People on this forum have asked me my view on Alan Bennett s new play The History Boys at the Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre on the South Bank in London in repertoire until 26 April. I went yesterday, and I liked it. It shows eight or so boys in the history sixth form of a good grammar school in Yorkshire. A sixth form is the form where you get ready to go to a university. A grammar school is a public school (in US terms) where children attend because they are bright: they are now few. In the fictional sixth form of 20 years ago in the play the very able head of history and the boys aim for entry to Oxford or Cambridge, that is, to a very good university. As you would expect of Bennett, the play is full of epigrams and jokes, and the characters are well written (and well acted). I went to a similar sixth form myself in the fifties (but in a school which was private in US and UK terms), and wish that we had been as bright, well read, and well informed as the boys on stage (but we got into Oxbridge, nonetheless). Bennett s hints on exam-man-ship were spot on. The producer was kind to us, and gave us time to pick up the more difficult jokes, which included five minutes of French, spoken at a level above that of our form.

I have just one grumble. We find that the quirky and able old schoolmaster who runs the form habitually gives motor cycle lifts to boys, and handles their genitals with one hand as they ride at fifty miles an hour. I find this believable. What bothers me is that the playwright shows no sign of disapproval. This seems to me a fault. The master is in a position of power, and the boys would find it hard to refuse the lifts. So this habit is an imposition of power, and I think needs a line or two in the text to say so. The boys are aged 18 or so, so can judge for themselves whether they are homosexual. What annoys me is that they have no chance to say no. That is to say, I am not here homophobic, but am opposed to exercise of power in this way. Still, this is but one fault, and by no means stops me saying that the play gives a good evening, very funny, and with no dumbing down.

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ben_haines_london is offline  
Old Jan 6th, 2005, 10:30 AM
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Interesting take on it, Ben. I personally enjoy a play that sets up such a premise and doesn't impose a moral "right or wrong" to it. I sometimes question the playwright using the play for a "platform". I love a play that sets up a situation and leaves the moral issues of the situation totally up to the audience. I suppose one could say the playwright can propose his side to the issue and then let the audience agree or disagree, but I enjoy it so much more when I don't see that the playwright was trying to show his own views on a subject. I'm not speaking so much to this particular subject but rather to plays in general.
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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 10:56 AM
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Ben, I take your point, but my response would be that the expression of disapproval is simply not part of Alan Bennett's theatrical vocabulary. One of the things that (in my opinion) make him special as a playwright is the way he depicts human behavior, in all its variety, without casting judgment on individual human beings. (If I were at all religiously inclined, I'd say something here about "hating the sin but not the sinner", but I'm not, so I won't.) I accept that others may feel that, given the nature of the behavior the teacher commits in The History Boys, this non-judgmental attitude isn't good enough, but I wouldn't expect anything else from an Alan Bennett play.

Also, when I saw the show (and I agree with your other comments about it, by the way), I didn't feel that the boys were quite as powerless as you thought they were. While it was made clear that they in no way welcomed Hector's advances, I thought it was also made clear that they had great affection for him as a teacher, and that they were willing (albeit reluctantly) to put up with his motorcycle gropings because they accepted that that was also part of who he was.

By the way, the last time I looked at the messages about The History Boys on the National Theatre's talk board (several months ago), there were quite a few messages expressing rabid disapproval of the play because the way it handles this issue. Isn't it nice that, even though our opinions may differ, we're able (so far) to discuss our differences temperately?
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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 02:09 AM
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Dear Bree,

It is, indeed, nice that, even though our opinions may differ, we're able (so far) to discuss our differences temperately? But I expect no less, for we are Fodors forum, with many of the customs of a good sixth form.

Happy new year

Ben Haines
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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 03:23 AM
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Apparently when some folks see something depicted on the stage and nobody in the play condemns it then they think this means it is "approved."

But it is interesting that on-stage murders never seem to get this sort of criticism, much less heterosexual adultery, spousal abuse, idiocy, lunacy, avarice, gossip, bad taste in clothing/spouses/food,. etc.

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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 06:06 AM
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Very true intrepid. Last year our community theatre did Tale of the Allergist's Wife and All my Sons, among a number of other plays. Many of our patrons screamed about the light comedy Tale of the Allergist's Wife because there is an experimental relationship between two women and a man -- which incidentally goes "horribly unsuccessful". Many patrons insisted that our doing this play meant we were "encouraging and condoning such behaviour". Yet at the end of All My Sons, the protatgonist kills himself. Funny. Not one person claimed that we were promoting suicide!! Audiences do project their own ideas and personal values into what they see.
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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 09:21 PM
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Many thanks for sharing the views.

Should a playwriter deal issues or simply tell stories?
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Old Jan 8th, 2005, 04:02 AM
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Slightly off topic, but BBC2 is broadcasting "Jerry Springer the Opera" tonight. All Hell has broken out.
Of course viewing figures will probably be ginormous!
Old Jan 8th, 2005, 07:22 AM
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Ben Haines: You and other readers may recall that one of A. Bennett s earliest successes was Forty Years On, set in a (public) school for boys.

I am trying to recall whether sexuality was a theme in that play -- cannot recall, though I do remember one boy being dressed up outrageously, for a school skit, as Lady Ottoline Morrell (being wooed by Bertrand Russell!)
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Old Jan 9th, 2005, 12:17 AM
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Tedgale: Thanks for the reminder. I enjoyed Forty Years On. Like you, I cannot remember sexuality, but it must have been there, surely. I shall go to the next London production, to enjoy myself, to find what it says about sexuality, and to see what thoughts it now provokes. I may even air them, but if so shall bear in mind useful corrective points made in this correspondence.

Ben Haines
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Old Jan 9th, 2005, 02:41 AM
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There was a double entendre in the sketch about Lady Ottoline and Bertand Russell, but fairly mild. No doubt there were others..
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