We might be the last people in this hemisphere to see a version of Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys. Not only did it prove so popular that theatrical productions of it abounded; the play was filmed in 2006. It was this which we sat down to watch at the weekend. Not having seen the play, we have no opinion on its status as an adaptation (although we understand that the fate of some characters were considerably changed). The film managed very well on its own, though – there was no real way to tell that this was an adaptation, if one were somehow not to know. No doubt this is partly because Bennett did his own adapting, and put the original cast in their well-worn parts. In no small part, however, a hat-tip is due to Nicholas Hytner, who directs a film like it’s his day job: The History Boys is a smoothly wrought thing, quite unusual for the adaptation of a play. (Mike Nichols’s film version of Marbet’s Closer came to Dan’s mind in particular as a film which failed to escape the more static qualities of its source material).
For all the sound and fury about pedagogy and learning, however, the play is ultimately surprising for how humdrum are the fates of its boys: none go to Oxbridge and become world leaders, or even leaders in their fields. All seem to wind up in the sort of career they might have managed anyway; it’s easy for an Oxbridge graduate like Bennett to be blase about the benefits of the ancient universities, but the play’s scepticism was nevertheless refreshing, particularly in light of today’s delightful news on tuititon fees (naturally denied by Oxford). [ETA: Interesting that the Telegraph link is broken…]
The play sees the Oxbridge hoopla as a way into a debate about the value of knowledge, and in particular a criticism of modern priorities in education: targets and exams distort how we appreciate learning, and create a system which prizes a student’s ability to fake it more than their creativity in making it. The strength of the play, though, is that this sentimental view isn’t endorsed so much as it is contrasted to its polar opposition. The truth, as all good historians know, is somewhere in the middle.