THE HISTORY BOYS, Alan Bennett's play (and now also a screenplay) is about a group eight teenage boys being groomed by their teachers and headmaster to pass the examination that hopefully will admit them to either Oxford or Cambridge University, and from there to who knows what kind of position of priviledge and leadership in the larger world. It takes place in the 1980s (a Pet Shop Boys song is the most current cultural reference in the play), and it is clear that the world, like the eight boys themselves, is in a period of transition. The boys, like boys everywhere, are easily distracted by sexual thoughts and are eager to impress one another and rattle their teachers. The two key influencers on their young lives are the English teacher, Hector, and a history teacher, Irwin. Hector plays yin to Irwin's yang. He floods the boys with poetry and literary quotations, encourages them to enact scenes in French, lets them quote movie dialogue in the hopes of stumping him and winnng the pool he forces them to contibute to, and fondles them as opportunity allows on the back of his motorcycle. Irwin, on the other hand, is a more cynical influence. The headmaster has called him in to teach the boys to perform, knowing that the examiners will be looking to be dazzled by memorable eccentricities rather than swayed by the accuteness of their thoughts, breadth of their reading, or depth of their wisdom. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so." While everyone seems to be proceeding in earnest, the audience can't help but feel all these efforts are of little use in a world that is rapidly changing. As another teacher, Mrs. Lintott, observes about the boys' futures in the closing scene of the play, "[They are] pillars of a community that no longer has much use for pillars," aptly encapsulating the play's melancholic, post-colonial mood.
Readers should be alerted that there are two distinct versions of the script available--one for the play as originally performed in London and New York (2004/2005) and the filmscript for the 2006 BBC/Fox Searchlight Films release. Both are good and both tell essentially the same story. Bennett's dialogue, as always, is witty, honest, and right on the money. His themes broad and important, his characters deeply flawed but lovable nonetheless.
If you're a purist, you'll probably want to buy the play script (ISBN 0571224644). It includes a 20+ page introduction by Bennett in which he gives the reader useful background information about the changing face of the British educational system over the past several decades.
But the screenplay (ISBN 0865479712) has its merits too. The nice thing about the film is that it was produced using all the principals responsible for the success of the play: Nicholas Hytner directed both, employing the same cast. By the time the film was shot, the actors had internalized their parts and were able to bring them to the screen with apparent ease and confidence. As Hytner's introduction to the filmscript makes clear, the lack of "big-name" stars and his and Bennett's firm commitment to the careful preservation of all the play's best features made financing the picture a real challenge. But it seems they succeeded (a DVD of the film is due out in April 2007).
Hytner's introduction in the screenplay is thoughtful and will be of interest to people who like to reflect on film adaptation; Bennett's "Film Diary" is typical Bennett, full of dry wit and bemused reflections on his unanticipated success. The script itself seems to follow the play closely (and includes scenes that ultimately needed to be cut to achieve the desired length, suggesting perhaps that the financers who ultimately stepped forward weren't exactly always silent partners). The scene directions (totally lacking in the play script) help the reader understand the many time- and scene-shifts that happen over the course of the story. But the real treat in the screenplay edition are the 43 photographs showing the cast and crew at work. This collection of stills and candid shots are clear evidence that everyone involved with this production was fully engaged and loving the experience.