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The History Boys

The History Boys

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Summary

The History Boys

In a nutshell 

The History Boys is a play written by Alan Bennett that premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London on May 18th, 2004. This play is set in a grammar school in Sheffield in the 1980s and follows eight students as they prepare to to take their entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. In this summary, you will get to know the story, the characters, their relationships and the main themes of the play.  



Plot summary

​​Act I - Part I

The play starts in the 1990s, and Irwin, who is a wheelchair, is discussing a proposed Bill with members of Parliament. If this Bill passes, it would abolish the presumption of innocence in criminal cases and so, Irwin teaches the members of the Parliament how to present the Bill in a way in which the personal freedoms are underlined. 


The scene changes to an English classroom back in the 1980s and Hector's students help him remove his motorcycle gear. The students, eight boys, already have a leaving certificate but they want help for their college entrance exams: they want to go to Cambridge and Oxford. In the staff room, the headmaster is talking to Mrs. Lintott. He says that if the boys want to go to Cambridge or Oxford they need to be taught "presentation". Irwin is hired to to help the boys prepare for their exams. Irwin and Hector meet each other and Hector refuses to give up any of his time with the students. The school bell rings and Hector gives Scripps a ride on his motorcycle. 


The next day, Irwin gives the students their essay and states that their work is factually correct but boring and then proceeds to explain to the boys how they could have written a better essay.


In the teacher's lounge, Hector and Mrs. Lintott talk about the boys as Mrs. Lintott shows her discontent over the teaching methods of the younger teachers.


Act I - Part II

Irwin is discussing the effects of World War I with the boys. The boys are doing quite well when it comes to explaining the facts, but Irwin says that presentation is the most important thing. He begins to state a few more facts but the boys annoy him by contradicting him with some poetry. Rudge has a conversation with Mrs. Lintott about Irwin's teaching methods and states that Irwin forces the boys to learn the facts.  


Irwin gives the boys more essays written by them, whilst mentioning that they are terrible and that History is a performance. During class Irwin asks the students about Hector's teaching methods. Timms starts reciting a poem which makes him believe that they used what they learned with Hector on their essays. The boys respond by saying that they would never do such a thing. When Irwin asks what else do they have up their sleeve, Scripps and Posner do another re-enactment. 


Posner tells Irwin that that he might be gay and in love with Dakin. Scripps tells the audience that Posner talked to Irwin about his crush because he knows that Irwin also likes Dakin.


Irwin and Hector talk about the boys and their exams. Hector believes that tests are the "enemy" of education and that the students should learn by heart.


Hector is caught suspiciously working on his bike with one of the boys and the headmaster suggests that he retires. Later, Posner recites a poem to Hector and after he finishes, Dakin comes in with a helmet saying that it's his turn to have a ride home. Hector declines. 


Act II - Part I

This act opens with Irwin filming a history programme. He is struggling and the director makes him take a break. Irwin then goes to meet a man that was watching in the distance: it's Posner, grown up. Posner is there to write an article on Irwin and then he asks him about Dakin and their relationship. Irwin notices that Posner is recording their conversation and leaves. 


The play then takes you back in time to Hector's class in the 1980s. The boys are making fun of Hector who is upset and trying to tell the boys that he's going to retire. He shouts and starts crying so Posner comforts him. The boys play the film game with the hope of cheering him up. 


The headmaster tells Mrs. Lintott that Hector getting caught messing around with his students was actually a good thing. He wanted to fire Hector a long time ago because of his teaching methods and this was the perfect opportunity. 


Irwin and Hector are sharing a class and Irwin suggests that the boys talk about the Holocaust against Hector's will. Lockwood says that the best answer to Holocaust in no answer at all. Dakin starts reciting a quote by a philosopher and a Cambridge professor - Irwin loves it and Hector hates it. A discussion takes place because Irwin praises they boys who are making valid points. Scripps and Posner get upset because they are not saying things to impress anyone, they are saying them because they're true.


Posner, Scripps and Dakin are talking about Irwin. Dakin admits to liking the young teacher and wishes for him to love him back. 


Hector, Irwin and Mrs. Lintott guide the boys through some training interviews for college. Hector believes the boys have to give truthful answers but Irwin thinks they should be smart and interesting. Mrs. Lintott alerts the boys to the fact that the interviewer could be a woman and they discuss the overlooked position of women in history. Irwin then interviews Rudge, who fails. 


ACT ii - Part II

The boys talk directly to the audience and discuss their weekend stays at their future colleges. Everyone received acceptance letters from Oxford or Cambridge. The headmaster congratulates them and Irwin talks to Rudge. However, Rudge seems unbothered by the lack of a letter. This is because in Rudge's interview he was told that he got accepted into Oxford because his father was a college servant. 


Whilst at Oxford University, Dakin looks for Irwin's name on the list of previous graduates but he can't find it. Irwin then explains he only got his teaching diploma at Oxford, not his undergraduate education. Dakin then asks him out and they make a date for Sunday afternoon. 


After this, Dakin confronts the headmaster about how he's trying to touch Fiona. After a heated discussion, the headmaster says that Hector no longer has to retire. 


Dakin and Hector prepare to leave on the motorcycle right after Rudge caught Hector off guard by singing him a song. The headmaster appears and insists for Irwin to ride the motorcycle, instead of Dakin. 


It's uncertain how it happened but Scripps thinks that because Irwin hadn't been on a motorcycle before, he leaned too much. They have an accident - Hector dies and Irwin is left paralysed from the waist down. 


At the memorial, the headmaster says a few words and mentions how successful the boys became. All except Posner: the only one who really cared about Hector's lessons is the only one who isn't successful. Hector appears on stage and Irwin disregards his teaching methods however Scripps disagrees: "Love apart, it is the only education worth having."



Characters


​​Irwin

The young substitute teacher who is hired to help the boys enter into college and to teach history alongside Hector. His philosophy when it comes to education is about looking at questions from a non-conventional perspective. At the end of the play, he suffers a motorcycle accident and is left paralysed. 

Hector

Hector is one of the central characters in the play. He is a middle-aged literature teacher and believes that his students should learn literature by heart. He makes them sing and act out scenes of movies. He also has sexual desires towards his students even though he is married to a woman. He dies in a motorcycle accident.

Dakin

One of the students. He's charismatic and confident which makes him popular at school. He's dating Fiona but seduces Irwin. He's accepted into Oxford.

​​Posner

One of the students. He describes himself as Jewish, small and homossexual. He's attracted do Dakin but doesn't know how to handle his feelings. He's accepted into Oxford but eventually leaves school. 

Mrs. Lintott

She's a history teacher at the grammar school. Her first name is Dorothy and she is the only female character who speaks in the play. She relies her teaching onto facts.

Headmaster

He's the headmaster of the grammar school and his name is Felix Armstrong. His main goal is to send the boys to Oxford or Cambridge to give the school a prestigious name. He doesn't like Hector's teaching style and hires Irwin. He sexually harasses his secretary, Fiona. 

Scripps

He's one of the students and is the most religious boy in class. 

Timms

He's one of the students and is the class clown. 



Relationships

Irwin ↔\leftrightarrow Hector

Both teach in the grammar school. They are helping the boys with their exams to apply to college and they have very opposite teaching methods.


Irwin \leftrightarrow Dakin

A teacher-student relationship that evolves to a romantic one.


Hector \leftrightarrow Headmaster

Hector teaches at the grammar school and the headmaster doesn't like his teaching methods. 


Irwin \leftrightarrow Headmaster

Irwin is the teacher hired by the headmaster to help the boys get into college.



Themes

Attitudes towards education

This theme reflects mainly on the headmaster. For him, the education only reflects the level of the schooling and nothing else. Then, there are Irwin and Hector who are also very important characters regarding education. They have completely different teaching methods: for Irwin it's important to answer to a question to impress others and he uses a non-conventional route; Hector teaches with his heart through songs and poems. 


Sexuality

Sexuality is one of the most important themes of this play. It explores homosexual and heterosexual relationships: there is Dakin and Fiona, Dakin and Irwin, Hector and some of his students. When Hector is caught by the headmaster, he says that knowledge and learning are erotic. The play also uses sexuality to show the boys' progress into adulthood and how they will need to work with or against a certain set of rules. 


Hope and failure

This theme is represented in the students who are trying to get into college and how some of them couldn't fulfill that dream. It can also relate to Dakin and Irwin's desire to be with each other which ultimately didn't happen.  



Key quotations

 

​​Act

Quotation 

​​Theme

   I
Timms: Sir, I don't always understand poetry.
Hector: You don't always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you'll understand it whenever.
Timms: I don't see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet.
Hector: But it will, Timms. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying. We're making your deathbeds here, boys.
Attitudes towards education
This particular quote refers to Hector's method of teaching: he teaches with his heart. He feels like his trying to prepare his students for their adult life.
  I 
Hector: The transmission of knowledge is in itself erotic act. In the Renaissance...
Headmaster: **** the Renaissance. And **** literature and Plato and Michaelangelo and Oscar Wilde and all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school and it isn't normal.
Sexuality
This quote talks about Hector's excuse as to why he was so close to his students. He was trying to justify his sexual acts with his way of teaching.
  I 
Mrs. Lintott: What's all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against the boys' ultimate failure?
Hope and failure
Mrs. Lintott refers to Hector's teaching methods. She claims that Hector is not preparing his students in the correct way. If Hector fails to teach the boys, his only insurance is their personal growth.


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