It is said that those who can’t do, teach; yet I would go one step further and suggest that those who teach do so out of an unbridled enthusiasm for youth, or, in the case of The History Boys, ripe, not-yet-coarsened flesh. The rigor of exams, the punishing hours spent studying, preparing, and burning no end of midnight oil to reach the pinnacle of the academic craft, then, is a marathon of thankless abuse with the stated goal of having unfettered access to cock. One might rationalize it all as the fear of death, where the passions of knowledge spill over into a desperate plea for budding manhood, but at bottom, it’s simple perversion and selfish gratification. Aging professor Hector (Richard Griffiths) is just such a man; a Charles Laughton-styled ham of pathetic need and gaseous buffoonery who yammers endlessly about a love of learning for no other reason than to have the opportunity to cup the balls of his male students on the long motorcycle ride home. But Hector is far from alone in his pedophilic quest; each and every character who professes to worship language and books is a colossal fraud; a pretentious con-man who lives off ideas, rather than for them. Verbal dexterity or mere intellectual expression is but a ruse — a means to a very definite end — and one that goes no further than the trousers of one’s compatriots. As such, and despite the all-too-British wit and wordplay on display, this is a familiar Broadway excursion into the minefield of self-serving lust and homoerotic longing, where to be clever is to be but one step closer to an orgasm.
Of course, any play (or filmed play) about young men and their beloved instructor is rife with gay undercurrents, even if it is a rare deviation from the norm and contains no overt flesh peddling. It seems, at least in the fictional world of the playwright’s imagination, boys do not gather in large numbers without at least being tempted to exchange fluids, and what better excuse than the preparation for bigger and better things? Alan Bennett’s treatment claims to prove that those who learn for its own sake, or those for whom unstructured play is a rich reward, are destined to extract the most marrow from life, but I saw little evidence of this bold assertion, and instead saw only pretty young things exchanging knowing looks and flirtations with fawning, child-like adults. Of course, Hector is not at all appealing, but his advances are tolerated — I’m guessing — because they are coupled with trite life lessons and passing grades. No one is attracted to Hector, but like the ancient Greeks before him, a great deal of respect is afforded his attention because, for Mr. Bennett, buggery is a rite of passage nearly as old and sacred as the first unaccompanied bear hunt. One cannot enter the chamber of adulthood without first being molested, groped, sized up, and penetrated by a revered scholar. This is proven again and again throughout the film, never more so than we are commanded to protest Hector’s dismissal after a crossing guard observes his juggling act one afternoon. He weeps, as must we, apparently, yet it is little more than being asked the impossible: to wit, sexual harassment, even rape, is acceptable so long as the victim one day attends Oxford or Cambridge.
At first we expect that Hector will be the lone wolf among lambs, but then we meet Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young instructor who is asked by the headmaster to “mold” the boys so that they can pass their upcoming exams. He gets them when he can, and at first is seen as a contrast to Hector’s free-form style. He pressures the boys to buck the received wisdom; expecting not mere competence, but unique assessments of the familiar. Go beyond the right answer, he states, and ask the tough questions. In one of the film’s true insights, he says, “There’s no better way to forget something than to commemorate it.” He is about the unexplored option — the interrogation – rather than sticking to the rules. He knows what will attract the attention of the top schools, and playing it safe won’t cut it. Still, he expects mastery, and as such believes in the discipline of the learning process. All of this could have been fascinating, if a bit corny, but the movie had to make him a closet case, and the real reason he’s so excited about class is that he’s in love with Dakin (Dominic Cooper), a confident charmer who could seduce anyone into anything. The one openly gay student of the group (again, I said “openly”, as they’re all gay) is also in love with Dakin, but it is Irwin who receives first dibs. After passing his exam (and as a thank you to his teacher), Dakin graciously offers up his cock for the sucking, and Irwin pants and heaves like a blushing schoolboy at the thought. At this moment, he is not an academic or a man of the mind, but a yearning, vulnerable clod, and it is a disgrace to watch him scramble about for the one thing Mr. Bennett believes he needs to be happy: his gaping maw slobbering all over a hard prick. But that’s his worldview, and one we need not share, even if I believe that’s what’s left of American theater.
The one dame in all this, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), shuffles around in a slightly bemused rage, largely because she is cursed to be the one staff member not getting a piece of ass. Even the vile headmaster (no other kind exists, I’m afraid, at least not in fiction) is bonking his assistant, which is but a plot device for a silly blackmailing scheme that attempts to save Hector. Lintott teaches history, and her moment in the sun occurs when she offers her take on the long annals of male incompetence that passes for the historical record. She’s right, of course, but in this film’s context, she could easily be the expected caricature of defeated feminism; a stereotypical shrew who rails against the world for conspiring to deny her a penis. I appreciated her nasty aside concerning the role of women at the 1919 Paris peace conference, but she errs in failing to mention how the babes would have altered history’s course, as well as the fact that President Wilson’s wife, Edith — one of America’s strongest and most relevant First Ladies — arguably ran the country in her husband’s final year. This factoid means little to the film, of course, but is merely an example of what so often ails academia: power is inherently suspect, presumably because the victimized group du jour fails to possess it. One wonders what they’d think if the tables suddenly turned.
But I’m rambling, and off-message as usual. Let’s just be honest and admit that whatever merit granted this play has been misguided at best. I simply cannot abide paying lip service to intellectualism and watching it set aflame and destroyed so that an ass-pounding Mr. Chips can be martyred. Yes, Hector dies in the end, though not at the stake or after being chased through London by a torch-wielding mob. Instead, he is killed on his beloved motorcycle, presumably because he grabbed passenger Irwin’s balls while navigating a hairpin turn. We don’t see the accident, but what other explanation are we left with? And then the finale — some stagy memorial where we learn what became of the boys — fails to prove that these youngsters internalized a damn thing. After all, what’s the message? To be your own man? Memorize poetry so that you’ll look upon the morning dew with wide-eyed wonder? That tests and achievement are irrelevant, and beauty all? I doubt the IRS or your landlord would agree, but more than that, it’s a greeting card sentiment not shared by a single character in the piece. History, at least for these boys, means learning about the tools by which to manipulate others, all in the name of self-actualization. And if the laughter and applause in the screening were any indication, people bought it. They always do.