By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
—Hector, a teacher of the old school, in The History Boys
Arriving early for an interview with Alan Bennett on a sparkling July afternoon, I kill time at an outdoor café adjoining London’s National Theatre, sipping filtered coffee that’s a far remove from the instant swill that was served at even the toniest eateries when I was coming of age. Right around that same period, Bennett was staging his first school play, Forty Years On, a homage to a very different England from the one opening up in front of me now.
Across from the South Bank complex, which houses a good slice of London’s high culture as well as the more plebeian and sadly defunct Museum of the Moving Image, pleasure boats steam across an equally sparkling river Thames, which my childhood memory offers only in befogged sludge-browns and grays. On a neatly AstroTurfed concourse nattily bannered “WatchThisSpace,” jugglers spin plastic bottles while hauling up strategically fallen pants, watched by a few desultory tourists and two hatted lady cops. An open-topped double-decker bus (a beloved breed soon to be retired, friends tell me in varying tones of outrage) trundles across Waterloo Bridge with “Have a Nice Day!” emblazoned across its front, and I while away the remaining moments before presenting myself at the National’s stage door by trying to imagine the hay that Bennett and his compatriots in the 1960s satirical revue Beyond the Fringe would have made with this chipper knockoff of American optimism. The brash urban scene is emblematic of the cleaned-up new England of which Bennett, a prolific and widely published diarist, is observantly aware, but to which he no more belongs than does Hector — the fat, disorderly, joyfully anachronistic old-school teacher in Bennett’s The History Boys who had New York audiences eating out of his hand when the play became an unlikely smash hit and snatched six Tony Awards last June.
Comfortably slumped in an armchair in front of a small bust of George Bernard Shaw, in a room ominously marked “The Chairman,” Bennett is characteristically understated about the success of The History Boys, which he wrote and then adapted for the screen under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, with whom he has enjoyed a fruitful partnership that includes stage and screen versions of Bennett’s play The Madness of George III. “It was slightly unexpected,” says Bennett, who at 72 looks endearingly like a cross between a country parson and a superannuated schoolboy in barber-chopped bangs (his full head of hair, a legacy from his late father, retains its natural shine), a crumpled jacket and sensible shoes. “Well, not unexpected,” he continues with that instinctive English preference for avoiding the first person at all costs, “but certainly not something you could have relied on, because you weren’t sure that it wouldn’t seem provincial, that the concerns of the play wouldn’t seem specifically English.”
On its face, The History Boys, which is set in a moderately fancy (though not private) boys’ high school in the 1980s, is inextricably British, with its mouthy uniformed schoolboys sparring off against their tart-tongued teacher, who’s always at the ready with illuminating quotes from Hardy or Auden and never misses an opportunity to sound off against the iniquities of the information society, as represented by the school’s crassly philistine headmaster. In that sense, the play must surely have appealed to the rampant Anglophilia of the average American theater crowd, who, against all evidence to the contrary (American reality-TV shows have nothing on the robust vulgarity of their British counterparts), persist in seeing England as a last bastion of olde-worlde civility. Bennett isn’t that kind of traditionalist: The History Boys is peppered with raunchy sexuality, and it’s a testament to the artistic power of the play that these same audiences have raised not a peep in protest against Bennett’s “grubby and stained” hero, who likes to cop a feel on favored pupils on the back of his motorbike after hours. By today’s catchall standards, Hector is a child molester, not to mention a corporal punisher who cuffs the boys over the head when they get fresh. Both sides love it.
As Bennett is quick to point out, The History Boys is not a realist play. The wonderfully funny banter that pingpongs back and forth is hardly naturalistic. If Bennett’s exquisite ear for dialogue was honed in the skits he wrote and acted in for Beyond the Fringe, its roots lie further back in his youth, when, like most kids of his generation, he went to the movies three times a week. (“I can write posh, public-school English because it’s what I grew up hearing in cinemas,” he told The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik earlier this year.) If anything, the play represents more an idea of an England only partly rooted in the experience of the solidly working-class Bennett, who attended Leeds Modern, a boys’ grammar school vaguely like the one in the play, and who, like the boys, found himself in a special class prepping for scholarships to Cambridge and to Oxford (where he finally landed — and, to his great surprise, graduated with a first — after serving out World War II studying Russian in the army).
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