Review: The History Boys ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 13, 2007

Review: The History Boys

The History Boys by Alan Bennett, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Toby Sewell, sound/music design by Ian McDonald. With Craig Annis, Michael Finney, Ben Geurens, Andre Jewson, Morgan David Jones, Brian Lipson, Rhys McConnochie, Luke Mullins, Matthew Newton, Beejan Olfat, Deidre Rubenstein and Ashley Zukerman. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse until May 12.

Alan Bennett's The History Boys is British theatre's version of Harry Potter. It opened at the National Theatre in 2004 to rapturous reviews and audiences, and swept off to Broadway, where rapturous reviews and audiences followed in New York accents. A transfer to the West End was inevitable. It's won so many Oliviers and TONY awards that the glow can be seen over the horizon. Then, of course, they made the film.

And at last we get to see what the fuss is about. Of course there's no question that Alan Bennett, the British national treasure who has penned such classics as The Madness of George III and Talking Heads, can write a sentence. He writes very well indeed, with feeling and intelligence, even if - as Chris Goode points out in his acute meditation on this play - his true metier is television, not the theatre. But, despite an (almost) superb production, I can't say I like The History Boys. In fact, it's one of the most purely annoying plays I've seen in a long time. I fear that untangling my irritation will make this review very long, so be warned.

You can see at once why it's been so popular. The History Boys is artfully seductive work, consciously pressing (but not too hard) all the buttons that signal its cultural worth, while at the same time harnessing the tried-and-true techniques of theatrical entertaining. The bitter pill of poetry goes down here with a big dose of sugar, and the punters love it. Before I go on, let me explain that TN isn't one of those who sneer at the popular for its own sake; a goodly part of my life is spent whuffling around the louche pleasures of genre literature, and I'll be eating popcorn at Pirates of the Caribbean 3 the day it comes out. But, in the light of the superlatives that garland this play's arrival, it's worth remembering Brecht's comment that if everybody likes a show, something must be wrong.

The History Boys is set in a minor public (ie, private) school in northern England during the 1980s - although it is a rather strange 1980s, overlaid with strong overtones of the 1950s, when Bennett himself was a student - and concerns a group of bright, working class boys. They are the students of Hector (Rhys McConnochie), the eccentric-but-loveable English teacher, and the history teacher, Mrs Lintott (Deidre Rubenstein), a woman with a wit dryer than Melbourne's reservoirs. To bump his school up the league tables, the ambitious Headmaster (Brian Lipson) decides to bring in a brash young teacher, Irwin (Matthew Newton), whom he hopes will give the boys enough polish to fast-track them into the cloisters of Oxbridge.

The new teacher is awkward but charismatic, and the boys' loyalties are divided between the old and the new. This allows Bennett to put differing notions of education at loggerheads. The conflict is between an Arnoldian notion of humanism, leavened with a bracing hostility to utilitarian ideas of culture, versus the amoral opportunists who see knowledge and education as merely a means to self-promotion and advantage. From the opening scene of the play, when a Blairite politician tells us that in order to preserve freedom we must sacrifice our liberties, it's clear that Bennett intends The History Boys to be a critique of contemporary Britain.

Hector is a familiar enough figure: he's the off-message teacher who inspires his boys (it's always boys) to a richer appreciation of life (and of course literature). He appears, sodden with nostalgia for doomed youth, in films like Goodbye Mr Chips or Dead Poets Society. Bennett's model is a little edgier than his precursors; Hector is disillusioned and flawed - he "fiddles" with the more attractive boys while scooting through town on his motorbike. He locks the door of the classroom to permit the boys to make camp re-enactments from classic Hollywood movies or - as in one of the purely funny vaudevillean scenes from the play - to practise their French by enacting scenes from a bordello. And they all quote reams of poetry - a select bunch dominated by Hardy, Houseman and Larkin. Of which more later.

The keen young blade Irwin, who is little older than the boys, offers a leaner, meaner view of culture, with a faultline of vulnerable hypocrisy - he is too intelligent not to perceive his own dishonesty. (He later becomes a television historian and, ultimately, the politician in the opening scene). Here, as a discussion about the Holocaust makes clear, there is no room for the autonomous or even sentimental value of education or art: they provide "gobbets" which one places artfully about one's cultural persona to catch the bored or inattentive eye. Irwin wouldn't argue with Sir Francis Bacon's claim that knowledge is power, but in the present age of celebrity he would add the rider that the key to exercising power is entertainment.

Bennett adds a novel twist by introducing the fissile question of the erotics of teaching. In the current climate, he is perhaps brave to raise it at all. The play acknowledges that the intimate act of teaching - the exchange between youth and experience - is electric with erotic energy. This is something that was openly acknowledged in the ideal of the Symposia, for example, and given explicit voice in Flaubert's A Sentimental Education, the story of a young man's affair with an older married woman. Where this erotic dynamic shades into abuse is something Bennett doesn't address at all: Hector's "fiddling" with the boys' genitalia is good-humouredly dismissed by everyone, except possibly Mrs Lintott, as a trivial question, a mark of Hector's foolishness more than anything else. Even the Headmaster makes it clear that, although it gives him an excuse to sack Hector, the real problem is elsewhere.

I don't remember the groper in my school being regarded so tolerantly by the students, although his furtive feel-ups of adolescent girls was perhaps as "harmless" as Hector's mild frottage; but then, he had greasy hair and bad dandruff and was a notably uncharismatic teacher. I do remember that the groping was regarded among the students with defensive, even savage, mockery, and that those students who suffered his attentions (this was the late '70s) were mostly distressed by their disempowerment. If authority chose to feel them up, they felt, rightly or wrongly, that they had no recourse, no right to object.

There is, unquestionably, something disturbing about Bennett's light treatment of this theme; minimising the implications of such behaviour was, as I recall, one of the major ways the Catholic Church dealt with the rampant sexual abuse among its priests. I'm not by any means looking for some hysterical denouncement of pederasty, but an acknowledgement at least of the darker complexities of Hector's actions would have made a more interesting play. But, let's face it, the erotics in this play, like its period dress, are a fantasy.

Bennett has given us a school where homosexual yearnings are openly accepted by the boys, and even the teachers, as normative. Among the students, the gay boy is Posner (Morgan David Jones). His hopeless crush on Dakin (Ben Geurens), the erotic focus of the play, is both universally acknowleged and, in a strange way, universally accepted, even by Dakin himself. No bashing of the queer boy in the toilets in this school; at worst, Posner suffers a little mockery, no worse than the playful hits over the head with magazines that in this world represents corporal punishment.

To reinforce this Platonic ideal, women exist on the margins. Aside from Mrs Lintott, the history teacher, there are no women on stage. They exist as shadowy axes of desire or undesire, the faded wives one never sees but from whose orbits husbands flee in order to fumble with the bright things of youth (although in the Headmaster's case, he's chasing his young secretary around her desk).

Mrs Lintott herself is, as she puts it, gender neutral: she is a comic figure who pops up sardonically to point out her own marginality, the fact that in order to exist in this world, she must forget that she is a woman. In her major speech she rails at the boys, asking them to consider how depressing she finds it to teach "five centuries of masculine ineptitude". This outburst presents an interesting revision of feminist protest. Mrs Lintott's complaint is that of the exasperated housewife: she is tired of being one of a long line of women who have historically followed men of action, "cleaning up their mess". The feminist argument is actually rather different: it claims that history has routinely erased the fact that women have contributed to the mess themselves.

These issues gesture towards the profound problems I have with this play. There is a certain disingenuousness in its argument that unravels its own overt propositions, which is seen most clearly in its discussions of education and culture. The History Boys sweeps along on a wave of sentiment that at once celebrates and laments the values of a humanist education, the Enlightenment idea of literature as a means of articulating and expanding the complexities of a felt and private inner life. Bennett explores this idea with a mitigatingly waspish scepticism: there's a line warning against the kind of middle-aged men who "love words", to whom literature is a wanly sensuous, vain adornment to an ultimately impoverished self.

Central is the assertion of the place of literature in making a "whole, rounded" human being. At the end of the first act is one of its most important scenes, in which Hector describes to Posner the sensation of discovering a writer who articulates your own inarticulate thoughts and feelings. "It's as if," Hector says, "a hand has come out and taken yours". This is a moving expression of what literature can mean to a young (and not only to a young) person; one thinks of the adolescent Susan Sontag, to whom her books were her "friends". But in Bennett's world it's clear that this sense of connection and liberation is rigorously circumscribed; it's a possible freedom that, like Hector's fiddling, goes only so far.

There's a lot of poetry in this play. I'm of a mind with Genet, who didn't approve of poetry in the theatre, but loved the poetry of the theatre; Bennett for the most part gets his poetic effect cheaply with static recitations, although there's one marvellous scene where the lines are distributed among the boys and a poem at last comes to theatrical life. But the wherefores of poetry's theatricality are not my concern here. In the course of the play, Bennett traces a very particular poetic heritage. It begins with Shakespeare, jumps to Thomas Hardy, AE Houseman, Rudyard Kipling, WH Auden and Wilfred Owen (with glances aside to Stevie Smith and TS Eliot) and culminates with Philip Larkin.

I have no objections to most of these poets, and fervently admire more than a couple of them. But this is a very recognisable genealogy which represents considerably less than the sum of its parts. And it's what it represents that concerns Bennett, and gives me pause. Shakespeare, with his unruly vitality, is the odd man out, and one suspects that his presence has less to do with the work itself than with Shakespeare's role as a noble emblem of British cultural pride. After Shakespeare, we are notably following poets who mostly work - in often masterly ways - a minor key. Thus we have Hardy and Houseman, but not a sign of Gerard Manly Hopkins; Auden but no place for WB Yeats or Dylan Thomas; Eliot but no Ezra Pound; Larkin, but none of his equally distinguished but more ambitious contemporaries - say, Peter Redgrove or WS Graham or Geoffrey Hill or Ted Hughes. And - naturally - only one woman, Stevie Smith, who happens, happily, to be a notoriously eccentric spinster.

Philip Larkin, the apotheosis of this line, in fact occupies an analogous space in British poetry to Bennett's in English theatre. He's the becomingly unassuming northern boy made good, whose brilliance never loses the common touch; an avatar, indeed, of "Little England". In The History Boys, Bennett traces a representative tour of conventional, middlebrow English cultural taste, of which his own work is a defining marker. And why not? I hear you cry.

It bothers me because of what it leaves out. In this cultural paradigm, qualities like passion, experiment, extremity, unruliness or risk are all - sometimes subtly, sometimes with the brute power of establishment marginalisation - carefully sidelined; they're smothered, ignored, mocked, appropriated or dismissed. This happens even when they occur in the canonical poets' work; in The History Boys, for example, the extremity of Owen's anguish about the First World War is undercut by an observation that, really, he loved the war, and couldn't wait to return to the front.

This is why, quite aside from the outrageous tearjerking Bennett permits himself at the end of The History Boys, his play is sentimental rather than an argument for the value of sentiment, a work that turns away from the challenge and beauty of art even as it purports to defend it. Even in the private sphere Bennett ascribes literature, its place is limited - its chief function is consolation. Literature might well be a consolation for the inconsolable implacability of living (though Samuel Beckett would have a bone or two with pick with that); the problem is that in Bennett's purview, that is also all it can be. There is not, and cannot be, any version of the challenge Rilke believed inherent in the experience of art: "You must change your life!"

It's a view of literature that is ultimately as repressive, as hostile to life and as self-serving as the political spin of Tony Blair. In fact, the apparently opposing arguments presented here seem to me to be on the same side of the same coin: the choice is between two identical shut rooms, the charms of each as meretricious as the other.

Enough of that, although there is, as always, more to say. The MTC gives it, as I said a long time ago, a superb production; squinting at the photos of the National Theatre show (ah, the wonders of Google), it seems to me that director Peter Evans has mounted this play with considerably more visual flair and imagination than the original. While the NT designer Bob Crowley went for a sense of detailed realism (albeit with shades of Lindsay Anderson's classic film If), zapped up with video footage of a school between scenes, Dale Ferguson has created an abstract, fluid space that evokes rather than describes the world of the school.

The action takes place exclusively forestage, and basic set elements - desks, tables and so on - are swung on rapidly by the cast between scenes, a decision which, aside from being practical, subtly achieves the sense of schoolroom chaos between lessons. The stage is bisected by a kind of grid, down which screens, mirrors and whiteboards can be slid to create a constantly changing counter-text to the action. Behind this grid climbs a series of broad steps, on which are placed softly lit desks. They are cunningly sized so the perspective appears as if the desks recede into the distance, and they create a lyrical visual backdrop. In the left hand corner of the front stage, in brutal contrast to the aesthetic unity of the rest of the set, is a huge white box with a door (it's the single "door" on the stage, and everyone enters and leaves through it). It wasn't me, I confess, who picked it as an industrial freezer, down to the door handle, but I'm certain that's what it is, a sardonic commentary on the coolroom that is the education system.

Evans moves his actors over this set with precision, variety and speed, ensuring the play never falters. And he has picked a marvellous cast; it's worth going to see it just for the performances. Matthew Newton as Irwin is a wonderful mixture of brash edge and vulnerability, inhabited by a knowing despair that manifests as cynicism; Brian Lipson's Headmaster is a tough northern businessman, motivated more by pragmatic interest than class snobbery, and that fine comic actor Deidre Rubenstein is - in the moments granted her - a scene stealer: dry, bitingly precise and very funny.

The boys are smart, funny and bursting with testosterone; there is not a weak performance among these young actors, although I particularly enjoyed Morgan David Jones' sensitively nuanced performance of Posner, and Luke Mullins as Scripps, the detachedly amused outside observer who will one day be a writer (or, at least, a journalist). Ben Geurens is clever, louche, dangerous and wickedly charismatic as the sexually precocious Dakin (where, I wonder, was that energy when he was playing Mr Sloane? - here he is an entirely different actor).

The only disappointment is the central performance. Rhys McConnochie is mystifyingly muted in the role of Hector, which requires something of the irresistible actorly ham of a Leo McKern or Richard Griffiths, who played this role in the original production. Sadly, McConnochie is totally outshone by the wattage of the other actors. Most of the touching (and crucial) scene about reading at the end of the first act - a scene which ought to generate pin-drop silence - is lost to the floor, and at other times McConnochie is even inaudible. As it's such an important role, his weak performance dims the lustre of the whole, which is otherwise a most enjoyable piece of theatre.

Aside from the play, of course.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I saw the show in preview and have been trying for days to find words to articulate my deeply felt unease at what the play 'does', or tries to do (the question a past teacher always encouraged me to ask about writing for the theatre). As usual, you have touched on much of it.

Your dissertation - and I think it can rightly be called so in all respects, primarily length... ;) - once again reminds me that artistic criticism, the need and ability to explore and articulate work and the effects it has, is a crucially important and much-undervalued skill (just like 'real writing'...). It's great that there are people using their mastery of this skill to set such high standards for the terms and depth of the investigation. I look forward to having more non-acting time (yes that's right, I'm an actor and I just said that) to spend developing this faculty in myself. Practice, if not perfect, at least makes a whole lot of sense.

That said, one of the best features of the diablogue phenomenon is the freedom to exercise this critical muscle in the form of comments, without the same level of pressure on things like form, deadline, um, logic, etc.

I agreed almost entirely with your take on the production, my only exception being that I found Jones's performance as Posner, though hardworking and adorned with the best of earnest intentions, to finally be physically stilted and emotionally unconvincing. He is also adorned with a beautiful singing voice, a consideration which I suspect may have weighed a little too heavily on Evans's mind when casting him.

To your thoughts on the play, I would add a few musings. You and Goode rightly point out the almost complete absence of homophobia or vilification in the world of the play - certainly not commensurate with the AIDS-paranoid Thatcherite Britain of the 80s. Given the benign, idealized playground in which Bennett has allowed his characters to frolic with such gay abandon, it seems to me even more bizarre that every character with openly expressed homosexual tendencies is eventually given one or several of the tried and tested stamps of isolation, loneliness, paedophilia and lack of self-actualisation.

In fact by the end of the play all the 'openly' gay characters have to varying degrees been killed off - Hector is literally dead; Irwin is paralyzed from the waist down (no point having that 'drink' with Dakin now); and Posner, in Bennett's most stunning and gut-roiling paean to contemporary notions of homosexual doom, ends up living alone in a cottage "that he has renovated himself" (a kind of pathetic, solo 'Queer Eye for the lonely queer guy'), with no real friends, only virtual ones to whom he has lied about both his name AND HIS GENDER!

I'm sorry for that rant. But Bennett's last effort, amidst the masturbatory sentimentality of the 'funeral' (a leaden theatrical device used shamelessly to wrap up the play's narrative and its shallowly explored themes) really got my goat.

Overall, I think you really hit the nail on the head with your comment about Bennett's subtle pushing of the cultural worth buttons. Part of this, I feel, is a desperate pursuit a social/political worthiness - he seems to be trying to convince his audience, even himself, that he is really exploring some pretty deep and edgy stuff here. The unfortunate and insidious effect of this is that he convinces himself, and many of us, that we have challenged some preconceptions and done some real 'forward thinking', when in fact the play serves almost unanimously to reinforce underlying contemporary stereotypes of gender and sexuality.

I can think of no better example than the staggering irony of the play's 'cursory glance' at woman. Here he gives the one, otherwise narratively expendable, female character a blundering (and dramatically unearned) rant at the boys/men in which she points out their ignorance of the role of woman, and implores them to give it... that's right, a 'cursory glance'! This line of inquiry, aside from being offensively undigested in a political sense, goes nowhere dramatically. I feel its clunkiness belies Bennett's aim - tick off the box marked 'women/feminism/alternate perspectives' on the P.C. checklist, and give yourself a pat on the back.

The whole thing leads me to make the comparison with Frank McGuinness's far superior 'Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme', which I worked on last year, and which has an all-male cast - if you're going to write a play entirely concerned with men and homoeroticism, don't throw a woman in for 'good measure'!

The friend I went with played devil's advocate, positing the idea that Bennett is investigating the marginalization of woman not just through content, but in the very form of his play. Perhaps this is what we're meant to think. Indeed, on the night I went, Rubenstein's masterfully piquant delivery of Lintott's line 'I have not hitherto been granted an internal voice' almost brought the house down. But ultimately I think this gives him too much credit - sorry Alan, you're not challenging the marginalization of the woman. You're just marginalizing her.

I think this is where what Bennett's play 'does' is really dangerous. We walk out of the theatre having been cajoled and hoodwinked into thinking we've engaged in some serious, up-to-the-minute social critique, when in fact the opposite has happened. If you're going to make Pirates of the Caribbean 3, great, do it and call a spade a spade. But by calling his (admittedly urbane and amusing) spade a radical, new-angle digger of political mind-dirt, Bennet is only fortifying the self-congratulatory apathy that is a deadly characteristic of our political scene. It is a characteristic particularly embodied (dare I say it and be called a snob) by the audience at which Bennett's play is squarely directed. And by golly, didn't it hit its mark.

Alright I need to stop or I'll unravel myself. Another lesson in the skill of critical writing - just how difficult it is to distil, order and then articulate your feelings on a piece of work!

A few corrections (just for the sake of posterity): in the penultimate paragraph you've got 'Posnan' for Posner and 'Dakins' for Dakin.


sylvia said...

Thank you, Alison. I, like the first commenter, had not yet articulated just what bothered me about this work (since I saw the movie, I thought perhaps some of the problems were due to an inferior film adaptation) and I had begun to think it was just me...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Sylvia and Ben - (and thanks too for the proofing! There's always something that escapes me).

Yes, the subtext is discomforting. It also occurred to me that you could unpick the question of race in the same way - Posner is Jewish as well as gay, the only "minority" in the play (aside from women, though it riles me to describe women as a minority), and the scene where the Holocaust is spoken about has the same kind of clunkiness as Mrs Lintott's speech. It made me think of Orwell's essay on British anti-Semitism, which is Orwell at his scorchingly honest, uncomfortable best.

Chris Boyd said...

I think this is where what Bennett's play 'does' is really dangerous. We walk out of the theatre having been cajoled and hoodwinked into thinking we've engaged in some serious, up-to-the-minute social critique, when in fact the opposite has happened. If you're going to make Pirates of the Caribbean 3, great, do it and call a spade a spade. But by calling his (admittedly urbane and amusing) spade a radical, new-angle digger of political mind-dirt, Bennet is only fortifying the self-congratulatory apathy that is a deadly characteristic of our political scene.

Whoa, Ben! Did you really walk out of the theatre thinking you had "engaged in some serious, up-to-the-minute social critique"? Did anyone else reading this blog?

This was an exercise in "subjunctive history", surely? Let's call it subjunctivitis... A red-rimmed, slightly maudlin, romantic revision of the past. If only poofters weren't bashed. If only abuse victims weren't scarred for life. If only nerds who used the word 'vanquished' weren't humiliated and ostracised. If only there were working class schools where it was okay be be smart...

The choice of Supertramp's song 'School' was dead right. I remember turning up my nose at the song when I was at high school. (The band members were, god, in their twenties!! What would they know?!) I thought the song was 'Sugar Mountain' for the boomer generation. (You know: "You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain/though you're thinkin' that you're leavin' too soon.")

Where, Ben, does Bennett call his "spade a radical, new-angle digger of political mind-dirt"? And how does he? Does he really have such pompous, delusional aims for the play?

I agree with you on (at least) one thing, I found Posner (or was it Posner's part?) a bit one dimensional.

The play is very different from the Royal Theatre's production, Alison. And the balance of the thing is completely different without Griffiths in the lead role. But, I didn't think the play is weaker because of Rhys McConnochie's diffidence in performance. Griffiths overwhelmed the rest of the cast. This is just different. McConnochie's performance allows the boys (and Matthew Newton in particular) to dominate proceedings. I thought it was a shrewd choice. It also means the play is worth seeing -- if it's your thing! -- even if you've seen the original production or film.

Alison Croggon said...

I think you're being a bit harsh on Ben there, Chris! Pompous and delusional? It was Bennett who introduced the subject of gender politics, remember?

And yes, we all like a bit of fluff now and again. The point is - as my careful cultural contextualisation tries to elucidate :) - that this play is proposing itself as something rather more than fluff, but as a remembrancer of Culture. That's its claim to seriousness, and to be perfectly honest, the only commentator I've read - and I read a lot of reviews - who hasn't swallowed its pretensions is Chris Goode. It's probably no coincidence that he's a poet as well. The politics enclosed in the literary referencing, its major claim to "seriousness", is actually pretty pernicious. IMHO, of course...

Chris Boyd said...

Is the line between being accommodating (as an audience member) and being gullible so fine?

My first comment looks much feistier than I intended, but I really wanna know... has Bennett made some grand claims about this play? (It could be in the program for all I know!!)

Isn't The History Boys just an entertainment? Smart fluff a la Tom Stoppard? Isn't that what it sets out to be and do?

I think the argument you make about the politics of the poetry is a very powerful one. I'm more ambivalent about the gender politics line. The casting of Deidre Rubenstein (and the equally formidable Frances de la Tour in the original) mitigates any glibness or 'wrongdoing' on Bennett's part. Perhaps. (There's a chance, surely, AB wrote the part for such an actor.)

Alison Croggon said...

No, Bennett hasn't made grand claims out of play, to my knowledge. Whatever claims that are perceived are drawn from the play itself - in my case, my expectations were shaped by the opening speech, where the excellent Mr Newton was doing a pretty good Tony Blair impersonation. Do you think Bennett didn't intend that to be read as a comment on contemporary Britain, esp with those tricky references to "liberty" and "freedom"? Or that he didn't intend the different philosophies (of education, culture, literature) at war to be read as a reflection on contemporary culture? Surely he deliberately framed them to be so? I mean, those ideas, those cultural allusions, are explicitly (not implicitly) in the play - I heard them!

And these ideas are, yes, artfully posed to be as winning as possible. Bennett is no fool, and this is not a stupid play (it's one of the very few plays, all the same, that I can say I disagree with - which perhaps says something in itself). All the more reason to keep your wits about you.

And wherefore this notion that seriousness and entertainment are, in fact, mutually exclusive? Bennett seems to make this claim himself, only to unmake it with what he actually does - History Boys uses every trick in the book. Aside from that, entertainment is not necessarily synonymous with "fluff". Shakespeare is one of the great entertainers, after all. (And to be honest, I'm not sure that Stoppard is that entertaining.) Certainly, there would be very few artists who would consciously set out to be actively boring, except maybe the Marquis de Sade. But that's another question.

Alison Croggon said...

PS (I'm always thinking of something else after Ive posted) - I really do think the gender politics are as problematic (and disingenuous) as Ben suggests...the word "tokenistic" doesn't get obliterated by deliberate irony. It maybe makes it even more problematic.

william zappa said...

Alison, I haven't been here for some time, certainly not long enough to respond to what I've read.

I think the thing I love about theatrenotes is the depth that you bring to it. This review is worthy of something like the London Review Of Books. It's a great essay, as far as I'm concerned.

On the play.Well I saw it in Sydney and I did think it was a clever piece of entertainment hat, as you say, used 'every trick in the book', it pressed all the right buttons.

I actually had a problem with Griffiths, he so overwhelmed the cast with his size- I actually was worried about him at one point-that I couldn't imagine him being able to reach around and 'fiddle' with the boys let alone ride such a small motor bike!

It was a number of female friends who expressed very strongly their dislike with the fact that he 'got away with it' so lightly, that the play didn't really explore that aspect in any depth.

It's been a while since I saw it , but I guess for me part of the problem with the play was that that area wasn't explored. It was something he did but we didn't know why he did it. (Sure, he did it because he like to feel young men's cocks, but why?) AND how come the boys seemed to just put up with it, at the most just make a joke of it. I take your point about the feelings of your school friends, but this is a play, and the writer has a choice about what is spoken.

Anyway, I actually just wanted to say, what a great review!

ps sorry you missed Daniel's beautiful play

Alison Croggon said...

Hi William, nice to see you back! I know you've been busy. And thank you. (I seem to be thanking people a lot, but really, thank you - Mr Boyd is refreshingly rude and stops me from getting too big a head).

Yes, it's a bummer I didn't see The Nightwatchman; and also that I was unable to see the NT show, so couldn't compare. On the other hand, my response to Rhys McConnochie's performance can't be said to be because I was negatively comparing it to another performance; I was puzzled, because I know he can fill that theatre, and for me it didn't work in that play. Perhaps his interpretation was a kind of response to Griffiths' dominance? Only guessing. There's probably a balance there somewhere. It did leave you wondering why this teacher was supposed to be so charismatic.

My comment about the school thing was really to point out that even "harmless" fiddling has consequences, which are to do with powerlessness and invasion in the face of authority. Oddly, the people I know who were disturbed about that issue were all men.

Statler said...

I'm not surprised the "fiddling" has been more of an issue with the Australian production. In England at least, while not accepted, it is acknowledged that "these things happen(ed)" in those kind of schools. While probably not an acceptable attitude these days, at the time I think many here would hold the belief that if you sent your children to that kind of school then what did you expect? Especially as the parents of most pupils will have attended the same schools themselves.

While not excusing what I agree is a fairly light treatment of the issue, I think this does explain why it raised little more than "shrug" over here.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I'm aware of that British brutalist attitude towards children. My poor father was sent to boarding school at the age of four (it was in the middle of the war). Which is kind of staggering to me. I don't want to be moralistic on this question - the question of physical abuse is treated as lightly. (Roald Dahl in his autobiography has a rather different view on the harmlessness of corporal punishment in English public schools.) At the same time, it's tempting to see in those light gestures perhaps a link with the repressed and repressive view of literature expressed in the play.

Chris Boyd said...

You do mean rude as in "rude health", right? The "vigorous and hearty" Mister Boyd, right? (LOL!)

Am I not your greatest fan?

You are the only critic who can change my mind. Paul McGillick -- for a while -- was another. (It doesn't happen often, true...) And even when we disagree, I can never dismiss a Croggon opinion with a wafture of my hand. Angry or otherwise.

I went away and considered your arguments. I think, on balance, you're probably right about the gender stuff.

But having seen an opera on the weekend in which every character (bar two) was male, and every single chorus member as well... I'm a little bit inclined to think that the "bag on the side" of the play was added because Bennett got self-conscious. That's not necessarily a bad thing, is it? (I know, it's a classic, pathetically-bad argument from men of a certain age... "But I'm trying...")

Alison Croggon said...

Chris, I really meant "rude" in the best possible sense! I'm sorry if it ssounded as if I was taking exception; written irony doesn't always carry, as I ought to know by now. We need your robust presence here to keep things lively. And I really ought not to be flattered, you know it's bad for me.

The fact that the western cultural tradition is totally dominated by male voices continues to be a problem (for all of us, I believe, of whatever shade of whatever sex or gender). Yes, at least Bennett is aware of it; but it's hard to not feel that - in this play, anyway, because it would be unfair not to take into account his other work and I certainly don't want to damn him with a generalised putdown - that feminism hasn't got much past than the idea that women ought to be politely noticed now and again.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you turn your back on a blog for a day or two (i.e. you back to school, all you professional writers and arts people who are no longer trapped by institutional schedules) and look what happens! So great to see the debate has raged on as usual.

Thanks for your comments, Chris, though I found them neither rude nor harsh. Obviously (at least I thought) I did not myself leave the theatre feeling politically challenged or uplifted. I used 'we' to denote audiences generally, which have been rapturous for both the play and the film. And you're probably right in accusing me of being a bit harsh on ol' Alan - I certainly read a lot into his intentions with the play. I wasn't basing those arguments on any direct quote from Bennett himself, rather my impression of what the writing was attempting to do, and I have to accept that it's just my impression.

In my defense I can only say that as a same-sex attracted (gosh how darn-tooting PC of me) man, the play pissed me off something wrotten, and the idea that the audience walked out feeling in any way politically/morally 'enlightened' worried me deeply.

And when you're the biggest diamond in Britain's mainstream tele-theatrical crown jewels ('harmlessly' fiddled with or otherwise), I think you can handle some critique from a faggot on a rant.

I suppose what I was trying (in my late-night incoherent way) to explore was Bennett's place in British, and perhaps ergo Australian, culture, and the nature and effects of this upon his audience. He is not just a national treasure (as Alison originally pointed out) but seems to be largely unassailable within the culture. And say what you like about the joys of fluff entertainment, but when the National Theatre of the country headlines the play, I think we can clearly see that both the writer and the culture think of this as 'art', not just farts and giggles.

I'm not intimately familiar with much of his other work (and again I accept responsibility for having painted him with perhaps too broad a brush), but it's the subtle political violence of this play - the values it lightly and 'artfully' reinforces - that I feel makes it dangerous. And the danger seems all the greater given his rampant popularity.

Then again, maybe I should give Bennett a break and face up to the fact that it's the mainstream I'm angry with, not him. But hey, that would be much less fun. And much more depressing.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and that last 'anonymous' was Ben. Must get one of those blog prophile thingamibobs. But that might lead me to start a blog, which would just be even more dangerous than an Alan Bennett play...

Btw, good to hear from Mr Zappa again too. I was intrigued by your reflections on rep theatre in the discussions over 'Translations' last year, and it wasn't until later that I realised I had taken you and a bunch of past graduates on a tour of the school during the (slightly bogus but lovely) '30th Birthday Celebration.' I believe I was quite drunk at the time, but I remember several funny stories from the days when you were a movement teacher. Looking forward to the Gogol!


Chris Boyd said...

Thanks Ben. (I almost cried laughing reading the tootin' paragraph.)

FWIW, here's a line from Martin Ball's review in Teh Aged:

"[Deidre Rubenstein's] bluestocking speech adds a much-needed feminine perspective to the play, though the forced tokenism of her statement betrays how masculine and homosocial the rest of Bennett's script is."

I can't help (myself) but add that it's better to be homosocial than suisocial.

It's been great whittling these ideas and arguments to some kind of point by the way... a distinct advantage of the blog review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing that out Chris, hadn't read The Age review yet (was your 'Teh' intentional or a typo? And if so, ploise exploin?).

Obviously Ball had a similar reaction as myself (and, it seems, many others). I just don't think he goes far enough in his analysis of what this moment does. A female character speaking does not necessarily indicate a 'feminine perspective' - c.f. any of countless theories on feminine/masculine paradigms as separate from gender, particularly relevant here given the playwright is a man. Further, the tokenism of Linstott's speech doesn't just highlight the homosociality Ball refers to (might one even say 'homonormative'? Is that a term? It seems to describe the flagrantly idealised past Bennett is conjuring...) but in fact unmasks it as misogyny, or at least paternalistic sexism. As Alison suggests, the 'cursory glance' at the feminine still seems to be the best the mainstream culture can do. Bennett's tokenism is more than just salt in the wounds - this consciously constructed illusion of recognition, this comforting, self-assuring image of progress, only serves to reinforce the embarrassing myth that we live in a post-feminist society.

I literally just stumbled across a quote by Mr Keene which I think says what I'm trying to say only much better but. I don't know how to do those supersonarhyperlinko things, so I copy it in full.

"If theatre does nothing but comfort and confirm those who witness it, then theatre is unnecessary. We have commercial television to comfort and confirm us, to deny history, to deny memory, to cheapen pain, to teach us the text of our denials. We have the tabloid press to support our ignorance, to absolve us, to increase our distance from "The World," to reduce tragedy to pathos, to teach us the text of our denials. They both know just how much truth we can tolerate. They have their sales figures to prove it. They calculate their figures in hell (do you remember hell? It's where the terminally ignorant and the completely self satisfied recognize each other; they get on like a world on fire).

Theatre companies are beginning to do the same.

They are selling us ourselves. The way we would like to be. Our world only what we can touch; our living room ceilings are our heavens."


Finally, one thing that bothers me about Ball's review is that, although he seems to perceive this fundamental flaw in the writing, he glosses it while devoting quite detailed attention to the production. Is theatre reviewing (as far as that may be from real artistic criticism, at least in its tabloid form) no longer about the quality of writing in the theatre? Or is 'History Boys' just so well established as a hit that people feel there's no point criticizing it?

Alison Croggon said...

Heh heh. Part of me of course wants to know when theatre reviewing was ever about the quality of writing in the theatre - my youthful outrage over precisely that question got me very notorious when I was a young gel in the early 1990s.

That Keene quote, btw, is from "The Empty Church", published in an early Masthead, which is of course edited by me...strangely, that piece has been performed a couple of times in Europe. I take full credit for forcing the boy to write it. Link here.

Paul Martin said...

An interesting thread in general, and I specifically like the quote about television, which I've been thinking about lately. There are, of course, exceptions, but every time I see the TV on, I find it quite mind-numbing and have been conceiving of it as mostly 'time-filler'. Something I don't have time for.

Chris Boyd said...

although he seems to perceive this fundamental flaw in the writing, he glosses it while devoting quite detailed attention to the production. Is theatre reviewing (as far as that may be from real artistic criticism, at least in its tabloid form) no longer about the quality of writing in the theatre? Or is 'History Boys' just so well established as a hit that people feel there's no point criticizing it?

Had we world enough and time... And more than a few hundred words!

You mean "gloss over" rather than the verb "to gloss" I assume, Ben?

As far as I'm concerned, theatre reviewing involves looking for and highlighting the exceptional. Distinguishing features. What makes a play and/or production different. That's all most of us have space for.

Like Martin Ball, I wrote more about the production than the play. It might seem an indulgence that a Herald Sun review should contrast an MTC production with a Royal National Theatre production which stopped off in Sydney, but with a film of the NT show about to hit cinemas, it was worth pointing out -- I thought -- that this production has a very different balance... and that it's substantially better in some ways.

But beyond some oblique references (an observation, for example, that Evans hasn't subvert Bennett's agenda and that he has, in fact, added to the playwright's soft-focus with a daub of his own vaseline), I devoted more space to the apparent intention of the writing than its execution of those intentions. (Does "[Bennett] doesn't invite us to judge the variously messed up men and boys" count?)

But, hey, if you put a dazzlingly texty play in front of us -- let's say something by Raimondo Cortese in Bard mode... like Lucrezia & Cesare -- you'll get much more space devoted to penmanship.

It's a juggle. Text versus performance text.

And, hey, is there anything more dispiriting for a cast and production team than a theatre review which reads like an essay, which deals with everything but the bodies in space?

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Really interesting to hear your perspective on what it's actually like to balance priorities when writing for this particular form. Evidently it's no mean feat.

Is your review online? If so, what's the link? I'd like to read it.

For the record, at the time I meant 'gloss' in the sense of a brief reference or note in the margin. Interestingly, this slippage of meaning kinda points up my difficulty with Ball's review. He doesn't really 'gloss over' the problems with Bennett's writing, in the sense of putting an attractive veneer over them; he mentions quite directly the 'forced tokenism' within a play dominated by 'masculinity and homosociality', but this is all he does - he 'glosses' the problems without taking any time to investigate or explain them. Nor does this (I would have thought central) flaw in Bennett's work seem to influence his overall view of the play.

I would of course expect the bulk of a review (in a forum like The Age anyway) to focus on the specific production - that is essentially its function. No-one wants an essay in place of review, of course (though I'm not sure that avoiding 'dispiriting' a cast should be a primary concern). But I wondered if there wasn't room for more than Ball's 'cursory glance' at Bennett's failings. For example, how does Evans encounter these problems and tackle them in his production? It seems you may have looked at this in a bit more detail - I look forward to reading your stuff.


Timi said...

Just so you know, the history boys is set in a state (ie. not private) school. A key feature of the play and one which has been remarked upon in most reviews and by bennet himself at length

Anonymous said...

I have a number of issues with this film/play, but the primary one is the way in which Oxford (or Oxbridge) is seen as the ultimate destination. To succeed is to go to Oxford. Going to Bristol is seen as utterly shameful. To have not gone to Oxbridge is somehow to have failed in life. Actually many people don't even bother thinking about Oxbridge because it isn't presented to them as possibility when they are at school. This applies to the vast majority of state comprehensive school students. There are very few grammar schools around anymore. This fact highlights a major problem with the film, i.e. its utter irrelevance to the problems of the inequality in education today. People have richly rewarding lives (without the smug sense of superiority some oxbridge graduates exhibit) without having to go to oxbridge. Conversely, going to oxford does not guarantee a blessed life. I would have preferred a film that celebrates the excitement of learning and achievement, and panders less to the sentimental, romantic idea of oxbridge life being this golden period that everyone in their right mind would want.

Anonymous said...

Dear TN, how can you summarise parts of the play as "fantasy", are you oblivious towards the idea of the history boys being a parody in parts of Bennett, do refer to it as a "fantasy" is surely denouncing it's ability to connect to us, and thus reality. Not only this but to say that the poetry in the play is only recited is just not true, the scene where Posner and Nector discuss a poem(which one i cannot remember). I just feel overall though the review builds an image of the characters and the events that unfold, they just arent being put into context and their relation to Bennett ad his life I feel are just being ignored. Despite this, a intresting read.

Marie said...

Loving the comments - all 4 years of them! Will be printing off to allow my clever Year 11s to read them along-side the understanding of actual play to see where they stand as critics of the play. Taking them to see it some time in 2012. Anyone know where there will be a good production on? Hoping to go early May ish.

Jonny said...

Hi Marie,

There is an excellent production running from 16-19 May at the University of Nottingham's New Theatre.

kamagra said...

This is a great exploration of what education can and should be.