The most effective litmus test for a fantastic play is often the most basic. Every audience member responds differently, and many will walk away with few lasting impressions of the couple of hours they just spent in a darkened room, watching actors flit across the stage for their entertainment. It’s rare that someone walks away with anything more enduring from that experience – it’s only the greatest plays that have this effect, the ones worth remembering.
The History Boys, the Tony award-winning masterpiece by British playwright Alan Bennett, is this kind of play. Following the earnest and often hilarious efforts by a group of working-class schoolboys to win places at top universities, the play turns the concept of education on its head and asks the audience to do the same.
The central figure, an idealistic English teacher who can’t go five minutes without quoting poetry and who ought to have “carpe diem” tattooed on his forehead, attempts to instill a love of learning for learning’s sake in his ambitious students striving for acceptance to the top universities in the country. Hector, as he is known fondly, valiantly battles the powers of conformity and the allure of teaching to the test to leave the boys with lessons that last a lifetime.
Set almost exclusively in the classroom, the play still never fails to neglect the kind of education that inevitably occurs outside. A story revolving around a group of male teenagers would be remiss without a considerable amount of sexual angst, and The History Boys certainly doesn’t skimp in this respect. Themes of homosexuality run throughout, interweaving with the broader concepts of growth and self-discovery at the play’s heart.
In keeping with Mask & Bauble’s 161st season theme of “If You Dare,” History Boys deals with this sense of daring and self-questioning that is also at the core of the upcoming productions Polk and Spring Awakening. Navigating the challenges of growing up is an education in itself, the play reminds the audience.
“[History Boys is] a great play for bringing the relationship between education and self-discovery not only to the stage, but to the forefront of our consciousness,” said producer Allie Van Dine (SFS ’13). The cast and crew do an excellent job of doing both, whether it’s through the actors’ laughable antics or the fantastic use of the stage as the hallowed place of learning.
Set Designer Swedian Lie (COL ’13) chose a rather unique approach to using the space in Poulton Hall. With the audience divided on either side of the room, there are two stages at opposite ends. This tactic “lets the audience choose what to focus on,” Lie said. “It also allows them to see a richer world with more detail.”
The actors do their own part in portraying this rich world through their performances worthy of “top marks.” Adrian Prado (COL ’14) and Taylor Mansmann (COL ’15) are especially noteworthy in their portrayals of Hector and Dakin, Prado the very picture of a romantic intellectual, and Mansmann embodying adolescent swagger.
The chaotic classroom scenes are some of the best, disintegrating into rambunctious hilarity over something so basic as a vocabulary question—there’s even an entire scene, conducted in French, that ends with a character losing his pants. The more somber classroom moments, one even involving a tearful breakdown, reveal the play’s high emotional IQ at the same time. It’s this inexplicable combination of humor and profundity that makes those lessons, and the play itself, memorable.
As the school’s headmaster says at one point, “it isn’t that [Hector] doesn’t produce results—he does, but they’re unpredictable and unquantifiable.” At the end of the day, it turns out those are the best kind.