“The History Boys” fails at important lesson

Play gives errant gay prof a pass on pedophilia

By Lucy Komisar

Of all the plays I‘ve seen this season, “The History Boys” has been the most controversial, the most likely to provoke debate.

On the one hand, the rotund, erudite, slightly overweening sixtiesh professor, Hector (excellently portrayed by Richard Griffiths) propounds a philosophy of education we‘d like to subscribe to. Learning is for the love of it, for literature, especially for poetry (Hector favors Audin), and for history, of course.

He is charged with the summer tutoring of eight boys who have just completed high school, called grammar school, since this is England. They have to sit for an exam to get into Oxford or Cambridge, and this coaching is to help them compete with wealthy kids who have already had the advantages of public (which, in England, is private) education.

There‘s lots of wit as Hector livens up the class. The definitely post-pubescent boys learn the French conditional and subjunctive by pretending to visit a bordello. They play out old movies such as “Brief Encounter.” Hector conducts a fascinating tutorial with one of the boys, Posner (Samuel Barnett), at which he talks about the context that gives meaning to a poem. The classroom is decorated with posters of “Citizen Kane,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Casablanca” and a Renaissance panting.

Set against this philosophy is Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young contract teacher hired to get the students passed the exams. He knows all the angles and seeks to impart them to the boys. Moore is cool and controlled as he embodies everything that is crass about our culture.

The two teachers represent the intellectual battle between learning for exams or to get ahead and learning for life and enrichment. The first act of the play is intellectually exciting.

Then as a day‘s class ends, a few of the students discuss who will get to ride on the back of Hector‘s motorcycle. And you discover – perhaps not a shock in England but certainly unsettling in the US – that this eminent teacher gropes his students, in turn.

Until now, author Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner, both gay men, present Hector as the shining good guy against the crassness of the contract teacher and also of the headmaster (Clive Merrison) who is shown as a tight fellow with a sepulchral visage. But when the headmaster finds out and to avoid scandal does not fire him immediately but requires him to resign after the term, it‘s the headmaster who is presented as the villain.

What were Bennett and Hytner thinking? Is it okay for high school teachers to hit on their pupils? Hey guys, this man is a pedophile, a child abuser! He is using his position as their teacher to require his students to ride on the back of his motorcycle so he can grope their privates. Not only should Hector have been fired, he should have been criminally charged. Instead, we‘re made to feel sorry for him.

The result of this abuse of power appears to have persuaded one of the boys, Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who has been having an affair with the headmaster‘s secretary, that he can exert power over Irwin, whom he believes to be homosexual, too. He half invites/half taunts and orders Irwin to arrange a date where the teacher will suck him, as he describes quite graphically. And why is Dakin doing this? To show that Hector‘s influence has made him at least bisexual? Or to show gays as victims as well as purveyors of sexual power? Or to include some more gay sex? It‘s never clear.

As befits a production from the National Theatre of Great Britain, with the original cast, the acting is fine. There are some delightful moments, such as the duo of Scripps (Jamie Parker) at the piano and Posner singing Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. American audiences might miss the class references, such as the working-class footballer or the snobbery of “Oxbridge,” or the inside joke satire on BBC cultural films.

While the first act glistens with a profoundly moral debate, the second is confused as the author attempts to deal with the crisis in a way that is not anchored in morality at all.

The History Boys. Written by Alan Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring RichardGriffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour, Clive Merrison, Samuel Barnett, Jamie Parker, James Corden, Russell Tovey, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Dominic Cooper, Andrew Knott.

Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44 Street. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2:40. $46.25-$96.25. . http://www.historyboysonbroadway.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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